My Father’s Paradise review

Sticking with the theme of Jewish emigres, My Father’s Paradise by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $25.95) dovetailed quite nicely with the biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer previously reviewed. This book provides a fine counterpoint to the better-known tragic history of the Jewish population in Europe. In Kurdistan the Jewish population lived peacefully among Muslims and Christians for thousands of years, but that peace ended abruptly with the division of Palestine and Israel. Yona Sabar had his bar mitzvah and became a man at the same time that he signed away his Iraqi citizenship, an act that was required of the Jews who uprooted their families and moved to Israel. The Sabar family was treated better by their Muslim neighbors in Zakho than they were by their new Jewish neighbors in Jerusalem, however. Kurdish Jews landed at the bottom of the heirarchy in Jerusalem, and Yona’s father and grandfather struggled to adapt to their new surroundings. Yona worked during the day and attended high school at night, eventually earning entrance to Hebrew University. His knowledge of Aramaic garnered the attention of his professors and allowed him to attend Yale University on a scholarship. The study of Aramaic, hitherto only a spoken language, was such a new field that Yona was subsequently hired as a professor in a new department at UCLA. A clash of cultures was inevitable between Yona, the last Jew to have his bar mitzvah in Zakho, and his son Ariel, a product of 1980’s Los Angeles. This book is part of the attempt at reconciliation that it chronicles, a meshing of personal and political histories written with the deft skill of a professional journalist. It is a compelling work that brings to the forefront an overshadowed dimension of history and current events.

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