Reviewing: “My Father’s Paradise,” by Ariel Sabar. Algonquin Books. 2008. English. Hardcover. 325 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1565124905.
This was one of the most interesting books that I have ever read! Ariel grew up in Los Angeles. His father, Yona, was born in Kurdistan (in Iraq), where, after 2,600 years the Jews still spoke Aramaic. Yona’s family was brought to Israel in 1951. After a decade in Israel, Yona moved to the U.S. and eventually became a professor of Aramaic at UCLA. Ariel rejected his father for the first 31 years of his life.
The author writes: “Ours was a clash of civilizations…He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A.” While Ariel tried to be cool in California, his father spoke English poorly and dressed embarrassingly. Ariel rejected his father so much that he stopped calling him “Abba” and instead called him by his first name, “Yona.” “He was the odd-looking, funny-talking man with strange grooming habits who lived with us and who may or may not have been my father, depending on who was asking.”
When Ariel was born, his father had wanted to name him “Aram.” But his mother knew the cruelty of children to others with weird names. She told her husband that “Aram” was a nonstarter. The author writes: “And so even before I drew a breath, I had landed my first blow.”
Eventually the author went away to college and became a writer. When he was 31 years old, his wife gave birth to a son. Ariel asked: “Would [my son] break with me as I had with my own father?” Ariel realized he had to make peace with his father. He started to question his father about the past and the history of the Jews of Kurdistan. This book was the result. The subtitle of the book is: “A Son’s Search for his Family’s Past.”
What I love about this book is that it covers practically the entire history of the ancient and modern world. It starts in the eighth century B.C.E. but continues with the story of the mass immigration of the Kurdish Jews to Israel in the 1950s. Then it continues with Yona going to the U.S. and being a student at Yale, and also teaching at Yeshiva University and living in Teaneck. Finally the story continues with Yona’s academic career in California. Later, it involves Saddam Hussein and modern-day Iraq when father and son travel there.
In the eighth century BCE, a practical decision was made by the Assyrian leaders to adopt Aramaic as its official language. The Arameans had originated in Syria. They were poor and had a tendency to wander. (I hope you are reminded of a certain Biblical verse here!) The author writes that the Arameans were so powerless that the Assyrians saw no threat in using their language, instead of their own, Akkadian. Akkadian had to be written on clay. But Aramaic could be written on papyrus. This made it much easier to use. Over the centuries, the language crossed borders and bridged faiths as no other language had.
The author writes: “The death of Aramaic as one of the world’s greatest languages came suddenly. In the seventh century, Muslim armies from Arabia conquered Mesopotamia, and Arabic was steamrolled by Arabic… Middle Eastern Jews switched to the Arabic of their Muslim neighbors. Aramaic clung to life in just one place: on the lips of Jews, and some Christians, in Kurdistan.”
When other Jews, even those from elsewhere in Iraq, first met their Kurdish brethren in the 20th century, they could scarcely believe their ears. The Baghdadi doctor H. M. Haddad recalled: “Single words were understandable, or almost, and all at once I knew their source. This…[was] a derivative of Aramaic, the language I’d encountered in the Zohar! Impure, admixed, distorted but unmistakably the ancient tongue!”
The longevity of the language was due to the isolation of the Kurdish Jews. These Jews saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
A prominent story in the book relates to Yona’s sister as a newborn. Her mother was unable to nurse her. They reached out to a Muslim wet nurse, which Jews had done before. They paid the wet nurse in advance and told her to come back with the baby in two months. But she never returned! (This occurred in 1936. Seventy years later, the author goes back to Kurdistan to try to find her!)
Yona was the last bar mitzvah boy in his Kurdish town before the mass immigration of the Kurdish Jews to Israel.
What happened when Yona’s parents and grandparents came to Israel? The Kurdish Jews had their own customs. At his first Shabbat in Israel, Yona’s grandfather went from shul to shul, not recognizing the customs. “Is there any way to tell from the outside which are Israel’s Jewish synagogues?” he asked! It was exceptionally difficult for the Kurdish Jews to get acclimated to Israel.
Yona’s life work was an Aramaic to English dictionary, published in 2002, which catalogued over 8,000 Aramaic words.
Why did Ariel call his book “My Father’s Paradise?” The title alludes to the fact that Yona lived in a paradise of words, even though the people who spoke the language were not near him anymore and were dying out. Ariel observes that his father had sublimated homesickness and made it into a career. He asks at one point: How could a man abandon his past and hold onto it at the same time? The answer: Become a professor of this language. Ariel remarks: “Teaching Aramaic in America…was how he sang God’s song in a strange land.” (See Ps. 137:4.)
Interestingly, it was while living in Teaneck that Yona made the decision not to return to Israel after his PHD from Yale, and to go to UCLA for his academic career. One cannot fault him as Israel had failed his parents’ generation of Kurdish Jews.
Before Ariel had a child, there was another turning point in his relationship with his father. The producers of “The X-Files” had asked his father to read some Aramaic words on the show. Ariel was intrigued and wrote an article about his father, explaining that his father grew up speaking Aramaic in Kurdistan and then became a professor in UCLA. Everyone loved the article and Ariel began to realize that his father was unique and popular. His father had also assisted in the movie “Oh, God!” (with George Burns and John Denver).
The producers of “The X-Files” also asked Yona to say the phrase “I am the Walrus” on the show in Aramaic. But there was no word for “walrus” in Aramaic, a language that arose in an inland area. Yona made up a phrase “kalbid maya” (=dog of water). Yet on a later visit to Israel, speaking to his elderly mother, he found out that there was such an Aramaic phrase! (But it did not mean “walrus.” It was a way of referring to someone who loved playing in water.)
P.S. I wrote this column two months ago. President Trump had not told me at that time that he was withdrawing from Syria and that the Kurds would be in the news every day!
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He intends to buy the father’s Aramaic to English dictionary. He never watched “The X-Files.”
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.