I wanted to be this cool California kid -- a skateboarder and rock drummer -- and saw my father as a stone-age relic. He'd been born in a mud shack in a remote enclave of Jews in the mountains of Kurdish Iraq and spoke, as his mother tongue, Aramaic, a language most people thought was long dead. But after having my own son, I began to see that I'd been unfair. I stopped seeing him as a spoiler and began to see him as a bridge that could connect me and my own children to an important part of our past. I quit my job when I did because I worried that my father, and others of his generation with memories of that vanished world, were getting older. If I didn't act then, I feared, those stories might be lost forever.
Beyond capturing the stories, were you also afraid that if you waited, you might miss the opportunity to reconnect with your dad before it was too late?
For me, the two were inseparable. To gather these stories, I knew I would need to spend many, many hours with my father, getting to know him better, trying to understand how his origins made him the man he is. In the end, we wound up traveling together in 2005 to his hometown in northern Iraq.
Father & Son, Zakho, Iraq, Yona's birthplace, 2005
Tell us about your trip. Was it at all like you imagined? What was returning home like for your father?
As a boy, the little I knew about Zakho -- my father's hometown in northern Iraq -- was from the ghost stories he would tell. I imagined it as this sleepy mountain hollow, a place in a fairytale. What I discovered in 2005 was a bustling border town hurtling into the future, thanks to its location at the Turkish border, now the safest and busiest land crossing into Iraq. My father had been back once before, in 1992, after the first Gulf War.
It was his first trip back since he left as a 12-year-old in 1951 with the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq. But even he was struck by the changes in the 13 years since his last visit. One constant across all those decades, however, was the warmth many Kurds expressed towards Jews.
Though there are no Jews left in Zakho, the older generation of Muslim Kurds told us fond stories of the Jews who were their neighbors, friends and business partners. We were overwhelmed by invitations to share sweet tea and memories with many of the old-timers. Their welcome stood in stark contrast to headlines in the newspaper, and the portrayals of Iraq as a place somehow inescapably hostile towards Jews. The fact is that for most of its history, Iraq was a far more hospitable place for Jews than Europe ever was.
So often, reality is quite different than what we read in the newspapers. Have you and your father ever discussed the fact that both of you grew up defining yourselves in relation to an immigrant father? And, now that I think of it, your father was in the unusual position to ultimately find himself on both ends of that dyad - as a son of an immigrant and, later, as an immigrant himself.
UCLA where Yona is distinguished prof of Hebrew and Aramaic
I don't think my father defined himself against his immigrant father as much as I did mine. But he definitely had an immigrant father, and rather late in my reporting, he confided that as a teenager in Israel he balked at bringing girlfriends home, for fear of their reaction to his parents' traditional ways. For a while, my father wanted to become the consummate Israeli. After the Army, he even changed his last name to Sabar, the word for cactus fruit, the very symbol of the Israeli character.
If we live long enough, and, if we're lucky, most of us do arrive at the point where we're mortified by our past behavior. Luckily, I came to my senses while my parents were still alive so I could belatedly apologize. It's an unattractive stage, but pretty inescapable. Now that you've worked through it, would you share a few anecdotes of how a cool California high school surfer dude could find himself so embarrassed by his uncool dad?
Let's just say that one involved my father using a briefcase and squeezable travel shampoo bottle to sneak a single serving of Manischewitz Cream White Concord into an L.A. restaurant whose wine prices he felt were a little high.