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The calls come to my father's office at UCLA several times a year, often around Christmas or Easter.

"Professor Yona Sabar?" they ask, after identifying themselves as a priest or a minister or just a curious layperson.

"Yes?"

"May I ask, is it true you speak the language of our Lord?"

It's a question my father never expected when he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, for a job as a professor of Near Eastern languages at the university.

He is a native speaker of Aramaic, the everyday language of the Middle East in Jesus' day. But my father had been born to an illiterate mother in an isolated Jewish community in northern Iraq. And for a long time, he had seen Aramaic as little more than his obscure mother tongue, a dying 3,000-year-old language spoken in some Middle Eastern Christian liturgies and by a fading generation of Kurdish Jews.

Here in America, though, he began to see that Aramaic had a kind of currency. A screenwriter e-mailed for the Aramaic translation of the seven deadly sins. A woman said that her brother-in-law wanted to burn the Aramaic word for "hope" into his arm as a tattoo; would my father help with a translation? A prisoner at San Quentin wrote to say he had found Christ and wanted to study his language. Could my father recommend a textbook?

The ministers who cold-called around Christmas and Easter often wanted little more than to hear my father's voice, as if it offered some kind of link, however tenuous, to a distant past.

"Some were shocked that I speak Aramaic," my father told me recently. "For me, it is just my spoken language. For them, it is related to their religion and its past, and that is exciting to me."

"Why exciting?" I asked.

"If someone is showing interest beyond the small circle of Aramaic ...

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When a Professor of Aramaic Meets Hollywood
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In the Magazine

September 2008

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