I have an admitted bias towards anything related to Aramaic. My dad studies modern Aramaic, and one of my best friends does research in the field. I have this weird knack for meeting Aramaic enthusiasts wherever I go, and I can go on for hours about how cool Aramaic is, both the Ancient and the modern dialects, and how cool Aramaicists are, which I really genuinely believe but which I recognize is not necessarily a universal truth.
Anyway, it’s no surprise that I loved My Father’s Paradise, a new book by Ariel Sabar about his father, Prof. Yona Sabar, who was born in Kurdish Iraq, emigrated to Israel, and wound up teaching Neo-Aramaic and the history of Kurdish Jews at UCLA. I was predisposed to like this book, but wow–it was way more interesting and complicated than I expected.
Besides telling the story of his father’s life, Ariel Sabar goes into his family’s history, the history of Kurdish Jews, and delves into the experiences that Kurds and other Oriental Jews had when they first arrived in Israel (hint: the streets were not paved with gold). The writing is amazing, and the stories that are woven together are fantastic and fascinating. If you’re looking for a good Hanukkah present for your dorky Jewish dad, this is an excellent contender (not for me, though–my dad has already been given three copies). Buy it here.
I sent some questions to Ariel Sabar about his book, his father, and his research. Here’s what he had to say:
TF: You write a lot about how Jews in Zakho, the Kurdish town where your father grew up, lived in harmony with Muslims for many years before they fled to Israel when the Iraqi government made it difficult and dangerous to stay in the country. Did that peaceful past, and then the quick descent to hostility have any effect on how your father and the rest of his family view Muslims today? Are they any more or less inclined to look favorably on Muslims–Iraqi Muslims in particular–because of their past experiences?
AS: I canâ€™t speak for the whole family, simply because I havenâ€™t quizzed them all on this subject. But I can tell you that my father has never stopped believing in the worldâ€™s common humanity â€“Â the idea that whether Muslim, Jew, Christian or something else, there is more that unites than divides us. The sudden break in good relations didnâ€™t sour his view of non-Jews. In many ways, it only strengthened his conviction that when left to their own devices, when free of interference from governments and ideologies and fanaticism, people of every stripe are pretty good at finding ways to get along.Â