Afghanistan: The last Jew

Zebulon Simentov is the only remnant of a Jewish community in Kabul.

By JASON MOTLAGH
September 16, 2007 10:17
4 minute read.
Afghanistan: The last Jew

simentov 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The first question Zebulon Simentov asked his uninvited guest, eyes wide open at the prospect, was, "Are you Jewish?" There was a tinge of disappointment when the reply came back negative, but the last Jew in Afghanistan didn't miss a beat. "Humanity is one, religion doesn't matter," he said. Moments later, a Muslim friend entered the room, unfurled a prayer rug in the corner and bowed toward Mecca. An open box of Manischewitz matza sat next to an empty bottle of whiskey on a table nearby. Locals refer to Simentov, 47, simply as "the Jew." Originally from the western city of Herat, he wears a kippa with his shalwar kameez and swears "half of Kabul" knows him - though probably not for the reasons he'd like to believe. His only other coreligionist in the country, Yitzhak Levin, died in January 2005 and was later buried on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives. The pair had lived together in the Flower Street synagogue through the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the Taliban regime. And they famously grew to hate each other. Among other antics, they held separate services, had vicious shouting matches neighbors say could be heard down the street and denounced each other to the Taliban as spies for the Mossad. Both received beatings for their trouble. According to Simentov, the fight broke out nearly a decade ago when Jewish elders told him to bring Levin - more than 20 years his senior - to Israel. Levin would not budge, and each man accused the other of wanting to sell the synagogue for profit. When valuable Torah scrolls went missing, the blame game resumed until a Taliban court acquitted Simentov. The scrolls were never recovered. So intense were their subsequent spats that Afghan police suspected Simentov of murder when Levin died, until a post-mortem showed natural causes. Now Simentov lives alone in the crumbling two-story building, where wrought-iron railings in a Star of David motif could use a fresh coat of blue paint and the courtyard garden has gone to waste. With a brush of the hand, he dismissed having a change of heart since his rival's death. No love has been lost. These days no one comes to worship at the synagogue anymore, but he continues to pray every day and keep kosher, he said. A couple of years back he paid a visit to the rabbi of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, who gave him the authority to slaughter his own animals, since no other qualified Jew could be found for hundreds of miles. This was not always the case, Simentov said, explaining that there were more than 40,000 Jews in Afghanistan at the turn of the 19th century, as Jews fled from forced conversions in neighboring Iran. The Jewish community in Afghanistan can trace its beginnings to the exiles from Assyria in 720 BCE and Babylonia in 586 BCE. There is material evidence that indicates a continued Jewish presence in Afghan territory since the eighth century. Although archeological evidence is rare, textual sources in Arabic and Hebrew collected by the Karaite Yaphet ben Heli de Basra in the 10th century cite that the "Land of the East" had Jewish inhabitants. At the time, this was understood to include northeastern Iran, northern Afghanistan and southern parts of Central Asia. El-Idrisi, the Muslim geographer, mentions Kabul's Jewish community in one of his tomes. The city was a major entrepot on the trade routes between Central Asia and India, and Jewish merchants were considered to be among the business elite. They lived in a separate quarter, known as the Mahall-i-Jehudiyeh, that is no longer. The other main communities were located in Herat, near the Iranian border, and Balkh, to the north. Smaller groups lived in the southern towns of Kandahar and Ghazni. Hebrew was used for liturgy and religious studies, but Judeo-Persian was the main language spoken. Dress was similar to the Muslim population, while all Jewish men wore a black turban. Because Afghan territory was never fully colonized by foreign powers, the Jewish population had almost no contact with neighboring communities until the mid 20th century. But the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 1979 Soviet invasion combined to empty the community. Emigration to Israel was forbidden until the end of 1951, but 15 years later nearly 4,000 Jews had emigrated. By the end of the Soviet war, just 15 to 20 Jewish families remained in Kabul, all of which soon moved away. Oddly, Simentov said he preferred the communist period and even the Taliban to the current government, which he called a "mafia regime." He said he was a successful carpet and antiques dealer until state customs "stole" a container full of $40,000 worth of his goods on bogus grounds, leaving him with nothing but the synagogue. Although Simentov's wife and two daughters left for Israel years ago, he has no plans to join them any time soon. He is concerned there may be a property dispute with Levin's son over the synagogue, which is worth a hefty sum for its central location in one of the capital's main commercial districts. "Go to Israel? What business do I have there?" he said, noting that he doesn't speak Hebrew. "Why should I leave?" In the courtyard below, Shirgul Amiri, 20, watered a bed of pathetic looking roses. He said he comes to the synagogue a couple of days a week at his parents' request to keep Simentov company, acknowledging that the old man is in a grumpy mood more often than not. "He drinks a lot and is very impatient," the boy laughed. "But if you had brought a bottle of whiskey, he would have been in heaven." n

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