Sunday, May 15 at the home of Flori and Jeff Green, we gathered for a lively discussion of the book, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Past in Jewish Iraq, by Ariel Safar. What made our discussion unique was that we all agreed this was perhaps one of the best books we’ve read and discussed in our 16-year existence.
The direct link to the book club page is here.
Sharing the reactions and comments of the ten people in attendance revealed many of the reasons why this book captivated our minds and hearts. At the top of the list is the well-written story by the Los Angeles-born son of the Sabagha family, who weaves together picturesque and moving portrayals of real people and family relationships with factual details about the history of the Jews in Iraq, particularly the Kurdish Jews who were exiled to Babylonia 2700 years ago. None of us about this community of Jews who had been living in isolated smaller villages and towns in Kurdistan for nearly 3000 years, and still speaking Aramaic. In the author’s words:
“It is tempting to look out across my father’s hometown of Zakho and see a landscape of fairy tale: an ancient island in a river, in a broad plain, walled by snow-fringed mountains. The Jews lived on the island, a crescent of rock spanning 400 by 800 yards, in a region so isolated that Western visitors often fancied they had discovered a tribe of lost Israelites.” (p. 12).
“The key to Kurdish identity is not so much a common past, language, racial history or religion… instead it is the independent character and consciousness forged by hardscrabble lives in the mountains, a frontier mindset where honor and brotherhood count for more than what God you believe in or what language you speak…In the mountains, the Kurdish Jews faced almost none of the virulent anti-Semitism that hounded Jews in Europe, or even, to a far lesser extent, Baghdad…Seclusion bred fraternity…In Kurdistan religions from Islam, Christianity and Judaism to Sufi mysticism, Bahaism, and Yezidism flourished alongside one another, and extremism was rare.” (p. 69)
Bridging centuries of history from the ancient exile to the 1950-51 “return of the exiles” back to Israel, the author tells the story of these hard-working, superstitious and mostly illiterate people, starting with the author’s great-grandfather, Ephraim, the dyer, whom the locals believed talked to angels, to his son Rahamin, and finally to the author’s father, Yona.
On another (more personal) level we discussed how involved we became with some of the main characters. Everyone was impressed by Yona, who, with the help of devoted teachers, became a university professor at UCLA and a distinguished author and world expert in neo-Aramaic. In fact, the author wrote the book in an attempt to understand his scholar-father better and to repair the troubled relationship he’d had with him, while he (Ariel) was a teenager, growing up in Los Angeles. We learn that it wasn’t until Ariel’s own son was born in 2002 that the author realized how much he didn’t know about his father. The author’s enthralling prose and the occasional photographs included in his book help bring the Sabagha-Sabar family alive. Some of us described becoming emotionally involved in Maryam’s (Yona’s mother)’s – heartbreaking story: the disappearance and loss of her first child and the callous and presumably unjustified way she was treated by her husband.
Others in the group were amazed and outraged by the insights and factual information shared about the discrimination the Kurdish and other Mizrachi Jews faced in the new state of Israel. Comparisons were made to the new, Yiddish-speaking (Ashkenazi) immigrants, whose options were much better.
This is a book you won’t forget; it has the power to transplant you to another world and maybe even transform you in the process. We’d love to read comments and reactions from others who have read this book.
Selected Books We’ve Read and Enjoyed
Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashua – The author resists stereotyping in this slyly subversive, semi-autobiographical account of Arab Israeli life, telling the story of a Palestinian boy who wins a prestigious scholarship to a Jewish high school, but slips into listless malaise as an adult, despising himself, scorning his fellow Arabs and resenting the Israelis.
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado – A captivating memoir of the author’ family’s life in cosmopolitan Cairo during the time of King Farouk, and their painful relocation to America.
Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozich – Characterization dominate this novel which portrays a strange family of German immigrants in 1930’s New York City and their relationship to a 18-year old woman they hire to help out around the house.
Suite Francaise by Irene Némirovsky – “the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control” in the wake of the Nazi occupation of France in 1940.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Fragile Branches: Travels Through the Jewish Diaspora by James R. Ross – A fascinating account of the author’s journeys among the world’s far-flung Jewish communities, including communities in Uganda, India, Peru and Brazil.
See Under Love by David Grossman – The nine-year-old protagonist and narrator Momik is the only child of survivors of the Holocaust. He learns to hide all his feelings and shield himself from all attachments, but eventually he is touched by humanity, learning that loving kindness exists alongside the horrors of history.
Everyman by Philip Roth – A candidly intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism.
Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis – These stories center on the Berman family, Latvian Jews who have immigrated to Toronto to escape stagnant Brezhnev-era Soviet life. Stoic father Roman, anxious mother Bella, and hapless but endearing son Mark each confront the sadness of exile and the strange promise of a “better life.”
A Journey to the End of the Millennium by A.B. Yehoshua – In A.D. 999, Ben Attar, a wealthy Jewish merchant from Tangier, embarks on a perilous voyage to Paris accompanied by his two wives, his Arab partner, a rabbi from Seville and a young black slave. This novel explores the timeless questions about the nature of morality, character, codes of human conduct, and matters of the heart.
The Liberated Bride by A.B. Yehoshua
Foiglman by Aharon Megged – A story about the compelling and ambivalent relationship between an Israeli historian and a Yiddish poet, who has immigrated to Israel as a Holocaust survivor. It portrays the confrontation of two” intimately linked cultures: the Israeli, Hebrew-speaking, born to freedom and independence, and the ‘Yid’, the Jew whose language is Yiddish, who celebrates and mourns the vibrant, destroyed communities of pre-Holocaust Europe.”
A Bintel Brief by Isaac Metzker – An oral record of the problems of Jewish immigrant life in American is presented in this collection of 60 years of columns from the Jewish Daily Forward’s advice column, “A Bintel Brief” (“a bundle of letters”). Created in 1906 to help bewildered Eastern European immigrants learn about their new country, the column also gave them a forum for seeking advice and support in the face of problems ranging from wrenching spiritual dilemmas to petty family squabbles to the sometimes hilarious predicaments that result when Old World meets New.
More listings on the way as we identify the many titles we’ve enjoyed.