Award-winning author brings his father’s Kurdish-Jewish story to Westport
By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT– Growing up in 1980s Los Angeles, Ariel Sabar wanted nothing to do with the strange immigrant heritage of his father, Yona, who had been born in the remote Kurdish region of northern Iraq to an illiterate mother.
Descendants of the fabled Lost Tribe of Israel, the Jews of Zakho dwelt peacefully among Muslims and Christians for hundreds of years. Rugged lumberjacks and humble peddlers, self-made mystics and gifted storytellers, the Jewish community was so isolated that its members still spoke the ancient biblical tongue of Aramaic. Yona was the last boy in Zakho to become a bar mitzvah before he and his family joined the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel, one of the largest peacetime airlifts in history. In Israel, Kurdish Jews struggled against poverty and bigotry, watching helplessly as their ancient culture and language faded into oblivion.
Sabar’s award-winning memoir, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, chronicles the journey of father and son to modern-day war-torn Iraq in a quest for roots and reconciliation. A sweeping saga of Middle Eastern history, the book is also an intimate story of tolerance and hope in an Iraq very different from the one in the headlines today.
Sabar will talk about his book and his family’s legacy on Sunday, March 29 at The Conservative Synagogue in Westport, the culmination of the congregation’s second annual Books B’Yachad community read.
A debut novel, My Father’s Paradise won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The New York Times called Sabar’s book “graceful and resonant” while the Washington Post described it as “remarkable” and “thrilling.”
Sabar is also an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Washington Post, and Mother Jones, and on NPR’s This American Life, among many other outlets. He is a correspondent for Smithsonian Magazine, a contributing education to Washingtonian Magazine, and a former staff writer for the Providence Journal, Baltimore Sun, and Christian Science Monitor, where he covered the 2008 presidential campaigns.
The Sabar family has many ties to Connecticut. Ariel’s mother, Stephanie, spent part of her childhood in New Haven, and her parents, Codman and Jeannette Kruger, lived in Oronoque Village in Stratford until Codman’s death. Jeannette spent the last years of her life at the Whitney Center, a senior-living center in Hamden. Yona Sabar, a world-renowned scholar of Aramaic, earned a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from Yale University in 1970. Ariel’s wife, Meg, grew up on a farm in Easton, where much of her family still lives, and did part of her medical residency at Yale.
My Father’s Paradise is filled with close-up detail of a vanished life, which the author pieced together from oral histories.
“I put my laptop, a camera, and a bunch of notebooks in a bag and traveled around the world to speak to people who remembered life there,” he says. “A large number of those sources were Kurdish Jews living in Israel. In all, I interviewed about 100 people, and spent countless hours with my father, who is blessed with a very sharp memory of his childhood. I also immersed myself in books, articles, family letters, and photographs, and visited historical archives in Israel, the United States, and Great Britain. Finally, I visited Zakho itself twice, wanting to feel its grit and breathe its air for myself.”
Sabar says that, much as he tried to forge his own American identity while growing up, he eventually came to appreciate not only his father’s unique history and character, but the traits he had passed down to his son.
“One of my most vivid childhood images of my father is of him, in his tattered brown bathrobe, at his home office across from my bedroom,” the author recalls. “He’d often be bent over some obscure text that he was probably translating from Aramaic into English, and he could sit there for hours, even on the weekends. He was a very hard worker, a man who could tune out the world because some idea or important project transfixed him. I’m lucky to have inherited some of that work ethic from him. I also credit him for my curiosity about people and cultures outside the mainstream. In the writing I do for magazines, I’m often drawn to subjects that take people into corners of the world they might have no other occasion to visit.”
My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq with author Ariel Sabar: Sunday, March 29, 4 p.m., The Conservative Synagogue, 30 Hillspoint Road, Westport. Advance registration requested, email Stacyk63@aol.com.