MY FATHER’S PARADISE
By Ariel Sabar
My talk to the community at the Korobkin home in the presence of Yona and Stephanie Sabar
This may be the first time I’ve talked about a book or story that really didn’t need an introduction, and with our honored guests, the protagonists of this story, Yona and his lovely wife Stephanie, sitting here I’m quite embarrassed to be attempting one!
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t loved this story, and in fact in my own family and among my friends the book or its reputation has passed from person to person as if each reader identified personally. This although the majority of readers have come from the relatively familiar backgrounds of normative American Jewry, with roots in Eastern and Central Europe.
This book however takes us on a voyage of discovery, into territory not just unfamiliar to Ashkenazi Jews but to the majority of Sephardim too, even those from mainstream Iraq!
It’s a journey into an area, a time, a culture abandoned not long ago, actually during most of our early lives, yet already faraway and exotic.
It is also a look into the mind of one member of that community, Yona Sabar, who by sheer will and good fortune dug himself out of the dying embers of the culture and through his love of his language, Aramaic, teaching and reminiscing, and through the God-given blessing of having a loving son whose English writing skills are supreme --and who has enough connections to get himself printed, along with a desire to be the voice of his father’s life -- has educated and enthralled us.
There is another aspect to this book that is also the cause for our enthusiasm and emotion.
I’d like to discuss this first, which is a bit odd but needs to be said immediately.
This is: that a book of reported memoirs is also one of a particular genre… that of a son who after childhood, maybe much later, and hopefully not too late, rediscovers his roots, in particular his father, and comes to appreciate and love him more intensely, overcoming his own upbringing and prejudices and reactions to the older generation and everything they seemed to stand for.
There really ought to be a name for this genre. The stories, usually fiction, about a young person becoming an adult, like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, or All Quiet on the Western Front (that I only vaguely remember), or Voltaire’s Candide, are called roman a clef, or I’d say, turning point - the key to the future - in a young life.
It is the subject of many movies, usually narrated by the older person in a voice-over, with initial scenes of Sicilian mafiosi in a dirty street or boys fishing by a southern river or school kids sitting in a diner! But stories about a young person, particularly for some reason, a son, rediscovering his father are just as powerful and yet don’t, I think, have a genre name. We all know the graphic novel Maus, where the young Art Spiegelman, a brilliant graphic artist, delves into his father’s Holocaust history and comes out, if still infuriated, very understanding and close to his father at last. As in Ariel Sabar’s book, the son Art Spiegelman has a delightful gentile wife and the father seems to be irrelevant, out of touch, irritating. Of course Spiegelman’s father is depicted as continually grumpy whereas Yona, for Ariel, seems genuinely good natured, but the sons and fathers and therefore the rest of the family all win in the attempt to see, imagine, empathize and tell the world about the story and the journey to discover it. In life I’ve known a few young men, even in my English family, like this, some who never resolve their differences, some who have. Not necessarily by writing themselves, but by the imagination and inspiration of someone who tried to open their young eyes to their parents, and succeeded beyond the family’s wildest dreams. I think many of us here know such cases.
Let us revisit the ‘faraway and exotic’ place I mentioned earlier.
Paradise for Jews is not really the spiritual place with winged angels and harps we go to live with in heaven. That’s more of a Christian idea I believe, though there are glimpses in Midrash where we hear about Pardes, the orchard. Paradise for us is another word for Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, a place of natural fruitfulness, where Man’s roman a clef life for all civilized peoples began! However, he encounters headlong harsh reality, through unwitting actions of his own, or those of society, sometimes devastating, and is expelled, literally, from childhood for ever. He has to struggle, survive and make hard decisions, which take him to an actual or metaphorical faraway place, since, like the American novel, ‘You Can’t go Home Again’ (Thomas Wolfe, 1940), even if you return physically, the life of the place is gone. So Man during his long struggles looks back on his childhood as a place of peace and security, love and beauty. That’s good – we wouldn’t want it the other way round. The wonderful thing about Sabar’s book however is that Paradise is literally an island, between two arms of the River Habur, literally isolated, literally gone for ever and literally fairly near - in everyone’s mind - to the Biblical Gan Eden between the two rivers of Babylon! Can you imagine anything more poetically perfect? It sends shivers up my spine!
The Paradise for Yona Sabar – was the Kurdish island of Zakho, so isolated that even during the Arab riots of the 1940’s the Jewish inhabitants were still living cooperatively with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, the roots so deep, in fact back to the 734 BCE Assyrian exile, that when they left and even when the father and son returned on their visit, the older Muslims mourned their loss as of good friends and an essential part of their society. In fact in the 1940’s and ‘50’s they gave the departing Jews a huge send-off, and Yona and Ariel received warm welcomes when they returned. One wonders if the Jews leaving Babylon got such farewells! (This incidentally goes a long way to explain Yona’s sympathy with underdogs and unnoticed peoples anywhere, even unto today’s Arabs, and refusal to see them in black and white as we are inclined to do in America, even vis a vis Israel. It also brings me to a touchy subject for our group gathered here: his family’s loving acceptance, so it seems in the book at least, of his son’s intermarriage as being a natural outcome in the re-finding of a Gan Eden. But in my opinion, where there’s life, and especially love, there’s Jewish hope for us all and unfortunately I speak from experience).
I don’t need to summarize the book as you’ve all read it. I’ll leap over decades and go back and forth.
Briefly, Yona was named after the Jewish and Muslim miracle-making prophet Yonah, or Yunis, to whom his mother prayed for a son and child to replace her tragically kidnapped daughter Rivqa. His actual family name was Yona beh Sabagha. His mother, Miryam, whose own mother Rifqa died in childbirth, at age 12, I think, left an unhappy home that sounds like some Grimm’s fairy tale, and married a cousin, Rahamim, short and clever, the son of Ephraim the dyer, whose piety and holiness was respected and remembered by Jew and Muslim alike and who had a deep influence on his grandson Yona. Yona himself was encouraged to study and became the first of his several siblings to succeed – to this day Yona, for one, is a professor at UCLA and his brother Shalom in Hebrew University. The astounding thing and what had caused much curiosity over the centuries however: Zakho itself, where the inhabitants were so immersed in their ancient ways and still spoke Aramaic. Aramaic had been the lingua franca of the Middle East but was submerged by Arabic after the Arab invasions of the 7th Century CE. Aramaic was almost incomprehensible to travelers or scholars and became the subject of scorn or at best dry erudition, in Cambridge, Yale, Germany, even Hebrew University, until Yona was discovered during his days at university, someone highly educated and able finally to decipher the nearly dead language, both in its rare appearances in script and in the spoken tongue of his compatriots and especially his mother. Although Yona never quite intended his career to develop as it did, his move from Hebrew U whilst doing odd jobs on the side – and one thing we see is how incredibly hard he worked, both physically and mentally – you get nowhere by doing nothing – led inexorably to Yale and then to UCLA where he is a distinguished professor of Aramaic today, much beloved by his students and colleagues.
This brings me to another aspect of all our histories that is worth mentioning. It is the unforgivable prejudice Jews feel for each other, let alone non-Jews. Yona beh Sabagha and his family left Zakho in fear, turfed out after 2700 years. The Kurds were fairly despised by mainstream Iraqis – especially in the 20th Century when Baghdadis were adopting Western ways – but Kurds did have a sense of self; they knew who they were, both Kurds and Jews, and proud of it. They honestly believed Israel would welcome them, that they would find Jerusalem paved with gold, so to speak, that there would be warmth and synagogues everywhere full of pious people. At least, that is what Ephraim, Yona’s grandfather believed. The reality was utterly harsh. There was no room, there was no welcome, there was no attempt to make them comfortable. They were treated like alien immigrants everywhere, even here in the USA, --- look what happens even in Arizona to attitudes of normally decent citizens towards Latinos escaping poverty down south . In Israel the influx of refugees was overwhelming. Previously successful businessmen, like Yona’s father, became a nobody, an exploited employee, living in poverty and extremely crowded conditions of noise and filth, and his misery was turned on his patient wife Miryam, for the rest of his life. It wasn’t just the physical conditions, but the slings and arrows of society both in deed and word that were so humiliating. Beh Sabagha became Sabagh and inexorably, Sabar (a lucky similarity to Sabra) in order to blend in with ‘normative’ Israeli society. The Kurdish Jews – Jews, mind you – were treated ‘like Arabs’ or possibly worse, easily at the bottom of the scorn heap, as no outside international eyes were on Kurds as they were on Arabs or even Yemenites. They were the butt of crude jokes, excluded from friendships and cliques. All this sad but familiar behavior is normal in most societies, unfortunately, but for a proud people it was devastating and much, much kudos, kol ha kevod, to those who patiently worked and studied for the sake of their families and own self-respect. Added to this was the rough and ready nature of Israel in the 1940’ and ‘50’s, a brash society dealing with a lost past, one showing little respect for elders or for two thousand years of tradition, other than saving Jews physically, possibly, if Ariel is correct, partly for political reasons, as Ben Gurion admitted.
Some of the scenes I’ll never forget in this book I’ll mention, then let you add to them.
There is Miryam making her first trip off Zakho island to pray at a mosque for a son. (Holiness is holiness wherever it is found). There is the nightmarish hunt for Yona’s kidnapped sister Rivqa who may be or probably isn’t alive, and if she is, was Jewish by reputation, constantly known as that Jewish girl, meaning she probably wasn’t even a fully recognized member of her foster Bedouin society. There is the anger of Rahamim, Yona’s father, with ancient societal prejudice, against his innocent wife, and there is her heartbreaking widowhood full of songs and stories rescued from oblivion by her son Yona and her grandson Ariel. There is the gradual disappearance of chets and ayins and dress and behavior among the young members of the family in Israel and the Western music and literature they gobbled whilst looking out of the window at the ‘rich kids’ of Jerusalem, absorbing more than Western young people in America do today. There is Yona’s first meeting with Stephanie in Washington Square, vivid for me because I once saw a young man proposing to a girl under the Arch. There is the comedy of Ariel and his wife Meg (who in spite of her New England upbringing lets Ariel chase alone to Zakho saying to him, “I’ll do it for the Kurds!”) checking into a motel for 2 hours to watch The X-Files because of Yona’s input; there is the seminal moment when Yona sitting quietly in class at Hebrew U is recommended to go see Chaim Rabin, someone I’ve met and really liked. The book is replete with history, incidents, voices, color, dress, rhythms, smoothly turning from public history to personal; from inner pain to hard-won inner joys.
Kol ha k’vod, Yona and Stephanie, for bringing such a gifted storyteller into this world – he is carrying on in more erudite manner the ancient storytelling of your ancestors. May you have happy grandchildren who feel and act Jewish in all the ways you wish, and always remember you have given the world a treasure.