My Father’s Par­adise: A Son’s Search for his Jew­ish Past in Kur­dish Iraq

  • Review
By – November 14, 2011

In My Father’s Par­adise, jour­nal­ist Ariel Sabar has craft­ed a fas­ci­nat­ing and mov­ing account of both the Jews of Kur­dis­tan and of his rela­tion­ship with his father. Sabar embarks on this per­son­al jour­ney of recon­struct­ing his father’s life and his­to­ry when he him­self becomes a father to a son. Sabar’s father, Yona Sabar, is a pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing in Ara­ma­ic at UCLA, one of the few peo­ple alive today for whom Ara­ma­ic is the moth­er tongue. Grow­ing up in Los Ange­les, Sabar (the son) was acute­ly aware of how dif­fer­ent his immi­grant father was from the Amer­i­can fathers of his friends. For many years father and son were dis­tant, with much about the father inex­plic­a­ble to the son. Even­tu­al­ly Sabar decides to take time from his jour­nal­ism career and explore the his­to­ry and cul­ture that made his father who he is. Through con­ver­sa­tions with his father and peo­ple who know him, trips to Iraq and to Israel, he comes to under­stand the com­plex his­tor­i­cal, lin­guis­tic, reli­gious, and social forces that root­ed his father in the unique Jew­ish Kur­dis­tani expe­ri­ence only to tear him away and re-sit­u­ate him in Israel, and then lat­er in the Unit­ed States. Sabar explores what life was like for the Kur­dis­tani Jews, cre­at­ing a detailed pic­ture of a rich and peace­ful coex­is­tence with non-Jew­ish neigh­bors. Lat­er he exam­ines how they were treat­ed in Israel, and how dif­fi­cult it was for his father to be a poor, Ara­ma­ic-speak­ing Kur­dis­tani Jew. Parts of the nar­ra­tive read like a nov­el, in which Sabar imag­ines sce­nar­ios and dia­logue based on sto­ries he has heard. Oth­er sec­tions read more like tra­di­tion­al jour­nal­ism, such as when Sabar takes his father back to Zakho, the town of his birth, and tries to hunt down a long lost aunt. Some parts are intense­ly per­son­al, as Sabar probes his con­flicts with his father and his ambigu­ous rela­tion­ship to his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. The var­i­ous strands of this book are all com­pelling, though the inter­weav­ing of the many pieces is not always smooth; it is as if there are sev­er­al dif­fer­ent books with­in, all com­pet­ing for atten­tion. At times, there is too much of the author him­self, for exam­ple a sec­tion about his deci­sion whether or not to cir­cum­cise his son, which dis­tracts from the tale he is try­ing to tell about his father. Regard­less, this is a cap­ti­vat­ing book that intro­duces read­ers to a lit­tle-known piece of non-Aske­nazi Jew­ish his­to­ry. My Father’s Par­adise is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to lit­er­a­ture about Jew­ish his­to­ry, lan­guage, iden­ti­ty, and cul­ture, as well as what it means to be a Jew in the mod­ern world.

Read­ing Group Guide

Pre­pared by Deb­o­rah Karpel Leon, Jew­ish Out­reach Part­ner­ship, for One Book, One Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty, a Project of of Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion of Greater Philadel­phia in Part­ner­ship with Jew­ish Out­reach Part­ner­ship


1. In Judaism, the Gar­den of Eden is often described as Par­adise– a place of per­fect hap­pi­ness where all of one’s needs are met. Par­adise is also a place where the right­eous are believed to go to or to reside after death. What is the par­adise” being referred to in the title of the book? Is this a Jew­ish par­adise?” Why do you think Ariel chose to title his book My Father’s Par­adise? What is par­adise” for Yona? For Ariel? For you?

2. The book opens with a quote from Abra­ham Ibn-Ezra (Torah Com­men­ta­tor, 1087 – 1164 CE) about the pri­ma­cy of Ara­ma­ic. What might the author be hint­ing at by open­ing with this par­tic­u­lar quote? 

3. In many ways, Zakho, Israel and Amer­i­ca might be seen as char­ac­ters” in My Father’s Par­adise. In what ways do the per­son­al­i­ties of these places mir­ror the per­son­al­i­ties of Yona and of Ariel?

4. In recon­struct­ing Yona’s life sto­ry from the mem­o­ries of Yona, Yona’s friends and his fam­i­ly, Ariel describes many events and feel­ings of which he has no first-hand knowl­edge. How do his per­son­al feel­ings, assump­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions col­or his nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive?

5. Ariel describes his great grand­fa­ther, Ephraim, as a self styled mys­tic.” In a clois­tered soci­ety strait­jack­et­ed by tra­di­tion, this sim­ple, self-taught man had beat­en out a new path. He was a work­man-schol­ar. A dyer-mys­tic. A nobody-some­body. Ephraim Beh Sabaghah had invent­ed a new kind of respectabil­i­ty, one based not on the size of your land and your income, but on the depth of your knowl­edge and the strength of your faith.” Is there room for such indi­vid­u­als in our com­mu­ni­ty today? Can you name any exam­ples from your own expe­ri­ence?

6. Is the parent/​child rela­tion­ship dif­fer­ent when the par­ent is an immi­grant? If so, how?

7. How has this book changed your under­stand­ing of the his­to­ry, peo­ple and cul­ture of Iraq? 



1. Amulets and super­sti­tion play a promi­nent role in the Kur­dish Jew­ish life described in My Father’s Par­adise. Amulets were worn to avert the evil eye and to pro­tect the wear­er from harm. Rab­bis admon­ished the chil­dren of Zakho to fol­low Jew­ish law lest they fall vic­tim to Yimid Maya – The Water Moth­er. Are amulets and super­sti­tion a thing of the past, or do they still play a role in Jew­ish tra­di­tion today? If so, how?

2. What do the words from the betrothal cer­e­mo­ny described on page twen­ty-eight (“Why does the girl go hide Alone beneath the rock? Why is she shy? Why are you run­ning to the moun­tains? Don’t hide — it won’t help. Why are you stand­ing against the wall in tears? Go with the par­ents of the groom, that will be best for you.”) teach about the role of women at that time? How do we see this played out in Rahamim and Miryam’s rela­tion­ship? Explore the tra­di­tion of the Jew­ish betrothal cer­e­mo­ny. What are some of the rit­u­als and what do they sym­bol­ize? What is the ketubah and what is its func­tion?

3. Tuha, tuha, khiryeh bil­i­hyet abuha!” — A daugh­ter, a daugh­ter, dirt in her father’s beard!” Dis­cuss gen­der roles in Kur­dish Jew­ish soci­ety. 


1. At the begin­ning of the book, Ariel vis­its the Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood of Kata­mon and encoun­ters Zachi Levi, a mem­ber of the Kur­dish Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Levi ques­tions Ariel, Which are you, Ariel Sabar or Ariel Sabagha?” What is the sub­text of this query? Lat­er in the book, we learn of Yona Sabar’s grap­pling with chang­ing his own name. Dis­cuss the role that one’s name plays in shap­ing and defin­ing one’s iden­ti­ty, reflect­ing on Yona’s expe­ri­ence or on your own per­son­al expe­ri­ence. 

2. Con­sid­er the inter­play of Yon­a’s mem­o­ry of Zakho and the his­to­ry of the Jews of Iraq/​Kurdish Iraq that Ariel devel­oped as part of the sto­ry. What’s the dif­fer­ence between his­to­ry and mem­o­ry? Why are they both impor­tant? What’s the rela­tion­ship between mem­o­ry and his­to­ri­og­ra­phy in Judaism? 

3. In Israel, it seemed that Shab­bat was the only con­stant in the Sabar house­hold. What func­tion did the rou­tine serve and how did it influ­ence fam­i­ly life? 

4. Ariel sug­gests that Amer­i­ca is a place where one can escape one’s past. What char­ac­ter­is­tics of Amer­i­can soci­ety or cul­ture make it such a place? Is it ever pos­si­ble to ful­ly escape one’s past? 

5. At the end of the book, Ariel tells his plead­ing son Seth One day we’ll go togeth­er [to Zakho]. Okay?” How do you think Ariel’s per­son­al jour­ney of dis­cov­ery in writ­ing My Father’s Par­adise has influ­enced his rela­tion­ship with his past, present and future?

6. Some peo­ple col­lect objects. Yona Sabar col­lects words and sto­ries – mem­o­ries. He scours his remem­brances and those of his lands­man to recre­ate and to pre­serve. What should we pre­serve from the past to insure the future?

7. The rela­tion­ship of lan­guage and iden­ti­ty is a major theme in the book. Does lan­guage shape iden­ti­ty, or is it the oth­er way around?

8. What role does food – prepa­ra­tion and con­sump­tion — play in Ariel Sabar’s search to dis­cov­er his past? How do foods link us to our his­to­ry?


1. How does Yona express his Jew­ish­ness in Amer­i­ca? How about Ariel? What do they want for their prog­e­ny? What aspects of Judaism do you feel are most impor­tant to pass down to your own chil­dren? Are there ele­ments that you feel are best left behind? Do we have an oblig­a­tion to per­pet­u­ate a lega­cy?

2. On page 241, Ariel reacts to his par­ents’ objec­tion about inter-dat­ing: Here I was, a col­lege stu­dent, all the way across the coun­try, and I was still expect­ed to do cer­tain things, renounce cer­tain things, because of who he was. It’s too late,’ I said.” What was too late?” Ulti­mate­ly, is it ever too late?”

3. Ariel and his wife chose not to cir­cum­cise their son, yet they promise Yona and Stephanie that he will be raised Jew­ish. Ariel writes, I did not see cir­cum­ci­sion as the lynch­pin of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty.” Is there such a lynch­pin for you? What is it? How did you react to Ariel’s deci­sion? 


1. The peb­bles of his­to­ry have a rip­ple effect. What was the effect of the UN Par­ti­tion Plan of 1947 on the Jews of Iraq?

2. Dis­cuss the rela­tion­ship between the Jews of Zakho and the Mus­lims of Zakho pri­or to 1951. On what foun­da­tion was this rela­tion­ship built? Dis­cuss oth­er times in Jew­ish his­to­ry when Jews shared this kind of rela­tion­ship with their neigh­bors.

3. Through­out much of its his­to­ry, Zakho was referred to as the Jerusalem of Kur­dis­tan.” How did it gain this des­ig­na­tion? What func­tion does Jerusalem have in the Jew­ish world today? Is there a Jerusalem of Amer­i­ca”?

4. Ear­ly in the sto­ry, Shmuel, Miryam’s broth­er, reports to Miryam that he heard Mus­lims were killing Jews in Bagh­dad and that he is plan­ning to go to Pales­tine. Why doesn’t Miryam believe him? Dis­cuss the dif­fer­ences between the Jews of Bagh­dad and the Jews of Zakho. Were there any sim­i­lar­i­ties?

5. Ase­n­ath Barzani (15901670), con­sid­ered by many to be the world’s first female rab­bi, was a Kur­dish Jew. It was for her that the term tanna’it – woman Tal­mu­dic schol­ar” – was coined. Today, female rab­bis and schol­ars are com­mon­place in the Jew­ish world. Dis­cuss the role of women in Jew­ish schol­ar­ship. How has the female per­spec­tive shaped Judaism in the 21st cen­tu­ry? 


1. There is a fas­ci­nat­ing ten­sion between Yona and Ariel as they both strug­gle to find mean­ing in the trans­mis­sion of tra­di­tion. Recall Abra­ham and Isaac in the Torah. Abra­ham heard God’s call direct­ly. But Isaac had to hear the call through his father. As the first Jew, Abra­ham has the weighty respon­si­bil­i­ty of pass­ing down monothe­ism to Isaac (with­out killing him — or per­haps scar­ing him away). This ten­sion con­tin­ues to trou­ble Jew­ish par­ents: How do we pass down our tra­di­tion and yet have it be rel­e­vant and mean­ing­ful for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren?

2. Miryam trav­els to Nin­eveh to the shrine of the Prophet Yona to pray to God for a child. Why was this shrine a place that women would vis­it when seek­ing help hav­ing chil­dren? Upon return­ing from her pil­grim­age, Miryam con­ceives Yona. Look­ing back over Yona Sabar’s life, is there any sym­bol­ism that can be imag­ined between him and his name­sake? 

3. It was some­where between Decem­ber 1938 and Feb­ru­ary 1939. But the clos­est thing to an offi­cial record of Yona Beh Sabagha’s birth was the one Rahamim inscribed in pen­cil that day in the mar­gins of his prayer book. This lit­tle Yona,’ Rahamim wrote, grin­ning, was born today, on Shab­bat Vayet­ze,’ the Sab­bath of He Came Out.” What can we learn from this about how Jews have his­tor­i­cal­ly kept time? Inter­est­ing­ly, it is in Par­shat Vayet­ze that we read about Rachel and Leah and the chil­dren they bore Jacob. What is your reac­tion to the idea that God deter­mines who shall con­ceive chil­dren and who shall be bar­ren? 


1. In Iraq, the Jews of Bagh­dad were elit­ists who looked down their noses at the Kur­dish. But in Israel the worlds meet.” The lines of lan­guage, social class, and edu­ca­tion that sep­a­rat­ed these boys in Iraq blurred in Israel, where they were lumped togeth­er as back­wa­ter Jews in need of civ­i­liza­tion.” What can be learned from this expe­ri­ence? How was Yona’s immi­grant expe­ri­ence in Israel dif­fer­ent from the expe­ri­ence of his par­ents? Why? 

2. In the 1950s Israel was strug­gling to define itself in the eyes of the world. How did this influ­ence Israel’s immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy? David Ben-Guri­on and Itzhak Ben-Zvi, promi­nent lead­ers in Israel at the time, had diver­gent views on immi­gra­tion and inte­gra­tion. How did their melt­ing pot ver­sus tossed sal­ad ide­olo­gies influ­ence the course of Jew­ish history?

Hara E. Per­son was ordained by Hebrew Union Col­lege-Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion. She is a writer and editor.

Discussion Questions