One of my main goals upon starting UCLA was to take advantage of opportunities that would allow me to learn more about my heritage. While I was thrilled to find that my campus boasted renowned programs in Persian and Jewish studies, I hoped that I would also find courses that would teach me more about a part of my heritage that is often overlooked—my Kurdish roots. Born to parents who immigrated to the United States from the Kurdish-Iranian city of Sanandaj, I grew up in a household of three languages: English, Persian, and a dialect of Neo-Aramaic. Although I have been fluent in English and Persian all of my life, Aramaic was always foreign to me, probably because none of my Persian or American friends spoke it.
However, in college, as I watched the news and saw Kurdish troops collaborating with U.S. forces to fight terror in the Middle East, I started to develop an interest in learning more about the Kurdish people and their language. Luckily, an opportunity arose this past winter quarter, as Professor Yona Sabar offered a course in Neo-Aramaic at UCLA. After enrolling in the course, I learned that Sabar had been the subject of a popular book entitled “My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past.” With three weeks of winter break coming up, I picked up the book from my local bookstore and gave it a read. I say this without exaggeration: this book was probably the best book I have ever read for pleasure.
The novel is written by and tells the story of Sabar’s son, Ariel Sabar, a California native and American journalist with a culture vastly different from that of his Kurdish father. The differences between the two created distance between father and son. It was not until Ariel had a son of his own that he realized he hardly knew anything about his father’s past. He worried that this could negatively affect his son, who could one day ask about their family’s history. Thus, Ariel embarked on a quest to get to the bottom of the matter.
In the novel, readers learn that Sabar was born in the 1930’s as Yona Sabagha. He spent some of his greatest moments as a child in his birthplace of Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan; what he describes as his own little “paradise.” It was there that he studied Judaism with his pious grandfather, Ephraim Beh Sabagha, ate his mother’s delicious dishes of yiprach (stuffed leaves with rice) and hamusta (a sour vegetable soup), and listened to the folktales of the legendary storyteller, Yona Gabbay. Sabar’s father, Rahamim Beh Sabagha, led the family business and often arrived home from business trips with the latest toys and garments for his son to show off to other kids in town. The Jews of Zakho seemed to live in relative harmony with their neighbors. It was not until 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel, that the light in Zakho grew dim. Political figures of greater Iraq viewed the State of Israel as a threat to the primarily Muslim Middle East. Zionism, the belief in the existence of a Jewish state, was considered a corrupt ideology. As a result, anti-Semitic sentiment in greater Iraq eventually pervaded the smaller Kurdish provinces, including Zakho.
By 1952, Operations Ezra and Nehemia flew some 130,000 Iraqi Jews—including those from Zakho—to Israel. Sabar and his family members were among them. Some of the professor’s final childhood memories in Zakho would be of his bar mitzvah, during which he realized that the family served guests meat from his pet lamb, Kocho, and his experience at the Iraqi airport in Baghdad, where an officer slapped the young man three times for illegally carrying objects of value. However, as much as the Iraqi government wanted Jews out of the country, Zakholis (residents of Zakho) still lamented the Jewish community’s departure. In fact, upon seeing the Jews leave, one Zakho beggar asked, “Where are my [Jewish] brothers going?” (104). The Jews of Zakho wondered where their lives were headed, too.
Adjusting to life in Israel, the land proclaiming to flow with milk and honey, was not as smooth and sweet as it seemed. For religious individuals like Ephraim Beh Sabagha, Israel appeared very different from what was imagined. The secularism and fast-paced lifestyle caught people like him off-guard. For businessmen such as Rahimim Beh Sabagha, Israel’s competitive workforce posed a huge challenge. The family business disintegrated with each sibling working for himself. To help his family, Sabar took up a few jobs. By day, he worked for organizations such as the Histadrut, the primary Israeli trade union. By night, he attended the labor-union-managed high school for working youth in Jerusalem. In between work and classes, he also managed to find some time to eat, sleep, and maybe read a book or two for pleasure.
While his parents held onto their Kurdish culture and reminisced of the days they spent in Zakho, young Sabar absorbed the Israeli way of life, which called for the negation of one’s past and the adoption of a new Israeli identity. Later on, this concept of a new identity would inspire Sabaghas to change the family name to one that sounded more Israeli: Sabar. For those unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, the term “Sabar” comes from the Hebrew word sabra, the prickly pear. The sabra represented a typical Israeli: rough on the outside, but sweet on the inside.
After graduating from high school as class valedictorian and completing his mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, Sabar enrolled in the prestigious Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There, Sabar realized that as much as he wanted to hide his Kurdish roots, it was his heritage that would make him stand out as an academic.
He became known on campus as a native speaker of Neo-Aramaic, a language considered to most scholars as a dying tongue. His contributions to the field of Aramaic included the translation and interpretation of the folktales of his favorite childhood storyteller, Yona Gabbay—a job many non-heritage students had previously attempted to accomplish, to no avail.
Following his graduation, Sabar was admitted to a Ph.D. program at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Although he was now thousands of miles away from home, Sabar took his Kurdish values, such as the importance of family and the observation of Jewish holidays with him. He found it difficult to practice these values alone. In fact, after one year abroad, Sabar seriously considered returning to Israel due to homesickness. However, the scholar now believes that leaving his family was necessary for his own self-growth.
“In Parshat Lech-Lecha, Abraham [the Jewish patriarch] is commanded by G-d to leave his house to fulfill his own life goals. Like him, every person is expected to leave home at a certain point and make it [in life] by himself,” Sabar told me. He was certainly right about the concept of setting out to fulfill one’s own life goals, as it was on the East Coast that he met his future wife, Stephanie. The two eventually left the East for Los Angeles. There, Sabar received a job offer to lecture in Hebrew at UCLA. Since then, Sabar has been teaching Bruins for more than forty years. He accredits his long stay on campus to the lovely weather, his friendly colleagues, the quality of education offered at UCLA, and the opportunity to become acquainted with students from all walks of life.
Although he initially shied away from disclosing his personal life, a common habit among the Kurdish community, Sabar eventually collaborated with his son. It was only after “My Father’s Paradise” was published that Sabar understood the significance of his son’s efforts. He explained during our interview that “the experience of one person reflects the experiences of many.” Readers from countries as far as China have sent the Sabar family thank-you letters and e-mails for publishing relatable experiences of both struggles and triumphs.
I, too, could relate to Sabar in some respects. Like him, my family also left Kurdistan in the face of religious and social persecution. As I read “My Father’s Paradise,” memories of my grandmother putting me to sleep to the tune of Kurdish lullabies came to mind. Sabar’s mother’s humility as she cooked meals and only ate when guests were finished brought up memories of my grandfather, who often did the same. Sabar explained that the Kurdish concept of hiding and being humble arose out of a protective instinct.
“[Kurdish Jews] like to be kept from being exposed. It is best to keep [a] low profile…[the] only reason Jews survive everywhere [they go] is because Jews keep low profiles and don’t expose their problems.” However, he realized that at some point, one must come forward with his or her story so that it may be preserved for future generations. The knowledge that I personally gained as a result of reading “My Father’s Paradise” has been imperative in helping me get a glimpse of my own heritage.
Since starting Sabar’s Neo-Aramaic course this Winter, my vocabulary in Aramaic has expanded to over one hundred words. My daily homework assignments to translate and interpret recipes, tales, poems, and biblical verses have become incentives to connect with my elders and their rich culture. Moreover, Sabar constantly reminds us students that these texts allow us to recreate the Kurdish community’s way of life. Childhood lullabies and nursery rhymes, which primarily wished children long and healthy lives, implied that infant mortality was a rampant issue. Stories of Sanandaji Jews telling of the mistreatment of Jews beyond the boundaries of their city hinted that religiously diverse residents of Sanandaj coexisted in relative peace. Neo-Aramaic translations of biblical texts, such as the Book of Genesis, which took huge periods of time to write, tell of Judaism’s importance in the lives of Kurdish Jewry.
Although I have not come close to being done with my studies of Kurdish Jews, I have Professor Sabar and Ariel Sabar to thank for teaching me all that I know thus far. Only time will tell what lies ahead.