In a remote and dusty corner of the world, forgotten for nearly three thousand years, lived an ancient community of Kurdish Jews so isolated that they still spoke Aramaic—the language of Jesus. Mostly illiterate, they were self-made mystics and gifted storytellers, humble peddlers and rugged loggers who dwelt in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in the mountains of northern Iraq. To these descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, Yona Sabar was born.
In the 1950s, after the founding of the state of Israel, Yona and his family emigrated there with the mass exodus of 120,000 Jews from Iraq—one of the world's largest and least-known diasporas. Almost overnight, the Kurdish Jews' exotic culture and language were doomed to extinction. Yona, who became an esteemed professor at UCLA, dedicated his career to preserving his people's traditions. But to his first-generation American son Ariel, Yona was a reminder of a strange immigrant heritage on which he had turned his back—until he had a son of his own.
My Father's Paradise is Ariel Sabar's quest to reconcile present and past. As father and son travel together to today's postwar Iraq to find what's left of Yona's birthplace, Ariel brings to life the ancient town of Zakho, telling his family's story and discovering his own role in this sweeping saga. What he finds in the Sephardic Jews' millennia-long survival in Islamic lands is an improbable story of tolerance and hope.
Populated by Kurdish chieftains, trailblazing linguists, Arab nomads, devout believers—marvelous characters all— this intimate yet powerful book uncovers the vanished history of a place that is now at the very center of the world's attention.
The last Books & Books author event I blogged (The Girl from Foreign) was also on the theme of going back to the Old Country to find a family's Jewish roots. I guess that's a popular literary topic at the moment.