Yona Sabar studying in New Haven, winter 1967
Yona Sabar studying in New Haven, winter 1967

For journalist Ariel Sabar, Aramaic has always been more than a linguistic relic used in reciting the Kaddish or Kol Nidre. Sabar’s father, Yona, grew up speaking Aramaic in an isolated Kurdish-Jewish enclave in northern Iraq. Yona moved to Israel in 1951, just after his bar mitzvah, an underprivileged refugee in a new country full of them. A disciplined and determined young man, Yona went to university and then graduate school, before becoming a professor of Near Eastern languages at UCLA. In Los Angeles, with his accent and old Chevette, Yona was completely different from the fathers of Ariel’s friends, and as a teenager Ariel rebelled against what he saw as Yona’s bumpkin ways. But when Ariel became a father himself, he decided to learn more about Yona’s unlikely journey from the mountains of Kurdistan to the leafy streets of Los Angeles.

Ariel Sabar spoke with Nextbook about his new book, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq (Algonquin, 2008), in which he weaves together Yona’s story with the larger history of Kurdish Jews.

Photo courtesy of Ariel Sabar.