Ariel Sabar was raised in Los Angeles, the son of an immigrant father and an upper middle class American mother. As a child, he was embarrassed by his father. Yona Sabar drove an old car, wore clothes that were, at best, unfashionable, and, in general, was confounded by modern American life. Yona was a professor of Semitic languages at UCLA; most of the parents of Ariel’s classmates were in the entertainment business.
Despite attending a Jewish day school, Jewish summer camps, and regularly visiting relatives in Israel, Ariel wanted nothing more than to escape his Jewish family and, especially, his immigrant father. He attended college in New England, and made a life for himself there. He married, and worked as a journalist for the Providence Journal and then the Baltimore Sun.
Ariel eventually became curious about his father’s past. How did this man, who was born in 1938 to a Jewish family in a tiny village in Iraqi Kurdistan, end up as a well-liked and distinguished professor at UCLA? And so begins the story of My Father’s Paradise. This memoir is about the extraordinary life of Yona Sabar, but also of Ariel’s personal journey to discover and honor his father.
In 1950, shortly before the Iraqi Jews were all allowed to renounce their citizenship and emigrate to Israel, Yona became the last boy to become a Bar Mitzvah in Zakho, not far from the Turkish border. His family (then known as Sabagha) left with others of their village and were settled by the Israelis in a squalid camp in Jerusalem. They speak Aramaic, as the Kurdish Jews had for centuries. The Kurds are discriminated against in Israel, and the family finds life difficult and confusing.
As the eldest child, Yona works his way through high school, then Hebrew University. He hopes to become a physician, but his grades are not good enough. An encounter with a professor of linguistics sets him on his life’s path-to record and preserve the oral Aramaic language of his ancestors.
This memoir is detailed, personal and moving. Yona’s story is a remarkable one, a combination of serendipity, perseverance, and love of family and culture. It was not always a compelling read, but is is definitely worthwhile.
Published in hardcover-Algonquin Books-2008
Softcover edition-Algonquin Books-2009