Journalist Ariel Sabar grew up in a ranch house in 1980s Los Angeles, surrounded by a world of flashy BMWs and Beverly Hills salons. In striking contrast, his father was born to an illiterate mother in a mud hut in an isolated village in Kurdistan, an extensive area in the Middle East that covers parts of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and smaller parts of northern Syria and Armenia.
In California, the American-born son did what he thought was necessary to fit into American society: He turned his back on his heritage and, by extension, his father, even ceasing to call him "Abba" in public.
At a local presentation earlier this month, Sabar not only spoke of his personal struggles but also discussed the little-known Jews of Kurdistan, one of the oldest parts of the Diaspora, which he said dated back more than 3,000 years to the time of the Babylonians. Despite the changes in their homeland over the centuries, added Sabar, these Jews "never abandoned their ancient tongue" — Aramaic, a precursor to Hebrew.
Neither did the author's father, Yona Sabar, even after moving to Israel and then to the United States. He became a renowned scholar of the language, who even compiled a Neo-Aramaic-English dictionary, an unprecedented work. But for Sabar the son, now 37, it was a language that got in the way between him and his father, something that drove them even farther apart.
"I took pains to have nothing to do with my father," he explained to more than 350 people at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood on Nov. 2. "I wanted to be all-American," he continued, and said he had felt that the only thing holding him back was his dad and his heritage.
The culture clash that ensued continued throughout the first three decades of Sabar's life and drove a wedge between them. The journalist admitted that it wasn't until after his own son was born in 2002 that he understood the significance of all those generations of history, and "I saw I wasn't the end of a line but a bridge between the past and future."
A Journey of Self-Discovery
The result of this journey of self-discovery is recounted in first-time author Sabar's My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, which was released by Algonquin Books in September. The work was chosen as the 2008-2009 selection of One Book, One Jewish Community, an extensive programming effort sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, in conjunction with the Jewish Outreach Partnership, that's now in its second year.
The enterprise, explained Deborah Leon, director of programming at JOP, is designed to engage the local community "in shared Jewish conversations and Jewish learning," stimulated by the various themes that can be drawn from the book of choice. Area entities partner with her organization, added Leon, and host at least one book-related program between now and March 31. About 60 shuls, schools, museums and organizations have already signed up to participate this year.
Programming will include a "culinary tour of Kurdish Iraq" in January at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am. In addition, Sabar will make several more local appearances in the coming months, including a panel discussion to be held in March at Germantown Jewish Centre that will feature the author; his father, Professor Yona Sabar; and Villanova Professor Donna Shai, for a discussion of Kurdish culture.
"We were looking for a book that would resonate with many different populations — men, women, all ages," explained Old York Road Temple-Beth Am congregant Beverly Cohen, one of 14 members on the One Book implementation team, which is made up of rabbis, educators and Jewish communal professionals. Cohen added that the book is assessed for the Jewish subject matter it addresses, which could be a source for diverse, community-wide discussions and events — the whole point behind the initiative.
Following in the wake of last year's choice, Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky, which tells the story of how the author, the president of the National Yiddish Book Center, saved Yiddish books from oblivion, My Father's Paradise again focuses on a little-known language and culture.
At the Nov. 2 event, the kickoff of this year's programming, Sabar addressed a range of questions from the audience, spurred by his memoir, especially the theme of Jewish continuity, which is paramount to his memoir.
Discussing such important questions, noted Leon, is somewhat easier to do when they're broached in relation to a book.
"When you have a great book," she added, "you have the right mindset to dig deeper, explore many dimensions — and our goal is to bring that out."
So just where does Sabar stand with his father these days?
His answer: "One thing this book did was reconnect us."