Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ariel Sabar's 'My Father's Paradise' - Discussion Questions

Ariel and Yona Sabar in Zakho, Iraq


1.      Sabar’s book chronicles the history of his family. Would you say that the author speaks of universal human experiences, or is his purview narrower than that? If you are neither Jewish nor an immigrant, what aspects of this book resonate with you?

2.      Sabar makes occasional detours when explaining the history and anthropology of the Jews of Kurdistan. Do you feel these details add to the likeability of the book, or do they work against it?

3.      Why do you think it was important to the author to write this book?

Father and Son:

1.      Ariel Sabar seems to harbor a pervasive sense of guilt over his early resentment of his father. Would you agree that there is a need to make amends? What is the root of their conflict?

2.      Yona Sabar experiences displacement twice in his life: from his family’s forced evacuation to Israel, and his own migration to the U.S. Discuss his reaction to this double dose of culture shock. How is his alienation in Israel different from his isolation in America?

3.      In Israel, Yona finds a small group of Iraqi friends who defied the prevailing stereotype of Sephardic Jews. To what would you attribute their accomplishment? Was it a lucky coincidence, a matter of choice, or was there something else in play here?

4.      “My father had staked his life on the notion that the past mattered more than anything…” America is undeniably a melting pot, and an immigrant or immigrant family’s successful assimilation is a deft act of balancing heritage while embracing individualism. Do you feel Yona succeeded in this? How about Ariel?


1.      Yona Sabar’s grandfather was reportedly a man who conversed with angels. What was the influence of Ephraim on Yona?

2.      Rahamim saw a sudden shift of fortunes in his family’s move from Iraq to Israel. With that change there was also a transformation in personality. How would you assess Rahamim as a man, as a father, and as a husband?

3.      Ariel Sabar describes Savta Miryam as his father’s ‘muse’.  Yet the mother of the world’s foremost scholar in Aramaic was nearly illiterate. There is much in Miryam’s life that is tragic; how does she handle the adversities that were handed to her?

4.      A cornerstone of the book is the story of the lost child – Rifqa. Does anyone in the family share a greater share of responsibility for the loss of the little girl, or are they all equally culpable? Do you think the family would have parted with the child as easily if it had been a boy, instead of a girl? How do you account for the author’s obsession with finding out what happened to his aunt?

5.      There is a veritable gallery of characters in this book? Which among them did you find most memorable?


1.      At the heart of this book is the protagonist’s dedicating his life to the preservation of a language that is almost guaranteed to die out in a relatively short space of time. Considering the inevitability of its demise, are Yona Sabar’s efforts heroic, futile, or urgently necessary?

2.      What is it about Zakho that makes Ariel Sabar characterize it as his father’s Paradise? Is Yona Sabar unrealistic in clinging to his memory of Zakho? Why do you think his hometown has such a strong hold on his heart? What did he find there that he couldn’t find anywhere else?

3.      Considering the persecution that the Jews of Europe have suffered throughout history, how do we explain the lack of solidarity between Ashkenazi Israelis and their Sephardic countrymen? Would you consider this discriminatory attitude surprising, or inevitable?

4.      Yona Sabar seems to feel that America despite its material affluence is a land that is spiritually lacking (Father and Son: Speechless). Would you agree with him? Do you feel that Prof. Sabar retains this opinion to the end of the book?

5.      When the news is full of reports of outbreaks of hostility between Jews and Muslims, between people of different races and beliefs, do you find it surprising that a hitherto little-known village in Iraq has been an oasis of brotherhood? Can you think of other examples of tolerance and mutual respect? If such do exist, why is there so little media coverage of it, as compared to the daily inundation of negative press reports?

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