Children think their world is the only world. As they try to fit in, they look to their parents for guidance - or for examples of what not to do. An immigrant parent can seem like an embarrassing oddball. Yona Sabar, a Kurdish Jew, is a respected, beloved linguistics professor at UCLA, but to his young son Ariel, he was a total geek - cheap, ill - dressed, clueless. As a child, Ariel was disrespectful to Yona, and uninterested in his field of expertise, the study of the fading Middle Eastern language Aramaic. Happily, most children grow into adults who appreciate their parents. Ariel, now a journalist, demonstrates his own love and newfound understanding in My Father's Paradise, a sensitive exploration of his father's migration from an isolated Kurdish village in northern Iraq to Israel and the U.S., countries where he has flourished materially but never really felt at home.
The book is part memoir, part journalism and part imaginative re - creation of the lost world of Kurdish Jews. In Ariel's telling, it was a kind of "Fiddler on the Roof" culture where everyone spoke Aramaic instead of Yiddish. The local Muslim tribal chief protected the Jews, and all was well. But all was not well elsewhere. The Iraqi government reacted to the creation of Israel by persecuting its own Jewish citizens, and Yona and his family were among thousands forced to emigrate. The Zionist homeland turned out to be anything but hospitable. In Israel's early days, Kurdish Jews were despised by many in the dominant European Jewish community. Yona moved on to the U.S. and has devoted his professional life to studying his boyhood language.
Ariel bases the first two - thirds of the book on his relatives' memories, most notably those of his grandmother, who emerges as a quiet heroine. The last third recounts a recent trip that Ariel and Yona made together back to Yona's boyhood village. The journey allows Ariel to see Yona for the first time in his natural context - and ultimately to realize how wise his father can be. Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.