Onion-lashing Seder with the last Jew in Afghanistan

Zawlan Simantov is accustomed to having strangers bang on his door on Jewish holidays. For the 45-year-old Afghan, whose Hebrew name is Zevulun, hosting guests on such occasions was not only a good deed, it was his opportunity to fulfill the role of the leader of the Jewish community of Afghanistan, of which he happens to be the only member. There had been one other member, with whom Simantov fought bitterly; he died two months ago. On the second night of Pessah I found Simantov. He opened the door, asking me if I was Jewish and demanding to know why I had not been there for the first night, as if he knew me and had been expecting me. “Come,” he said brusquely, before I could answer. I followed him obediently into a courtyard and up a flight of stairs whose balustrade was designed in the shape of Jewish stars painted light blue. I was about to begin the weirdest Jewish experience of my life.

There, on the upper balcony, Simantov, dressed in a traditional knee-length kurta and wearing a kippa, poured “kosher water” over my hands and shooed me into a room decorated only with a small Afghan flag and a Muslim calendar with pictures of Daoud Khan, the former prime minister who overthrew the monarchy in 1973 and led the country until his assassination by Afghan communists in 1978. On the floor, Shaygol, a young Afghan Muslim who works for Simantov, arranged plates of food on a flowered bedsheet spread on the Persian-carpet-covered floor. This was the Seder table and I was the only guest.

I sat on a thin cot along the wall while Simantov sat on a chair in the corner reciting his evening prayers. It was hard for me to follow. In one corner of the room, a TV set placed on its upside-down cardboard box was blaring a Hindu flick. Outside, the muezzin of a nearby mosque had just begun to call Muslims to prayer. Maybe it was just because I could not understand the language he prayed in. In the middle of the prayer, he shouted for Shaygol to do something or another. Finally, he finished (so did the muezzin, but the Hindu flick continued) and we began the Seder. It was a painful process.

First, he ceremoniously unwrapped two Haggadot from a pink plastic bag. Then he stared a long time alternately at the plates of food and at the page in the Haggada that described where each item should be placed. The bowl of sweet, dark-colored haroset was in the place of the maror, the bitter herbs. The parsley was mixed with cilantro. The radishes were too far to the side. I told him and he grudgingly agreed to make some changes. He opened a box of matzot and took out three. They were sent to him from America, he said. The box said they were made in Israel and had the seal of the rabbi of Givatayim. It was a long circuitous route, but miraculously the matzot had arrived whole. It took him almost as long to decide whether to break the middle one then or later. He decided to break it, and then stuck it all into a pillow cover-shaped cloth covered with Afghani embroidery.

Simantov’s gruff manner was disconcerting at first. I was not sure whether to put it down to cultural differences, language barriers or character. But throughout the evening a few things would help relieve my nerves. One of them was the wine, a dark, sweet liquid kept in a Stolichnaya Vodka bottle. “Kosher,” he said. He had made it himself, he said, from black grapes. He poured the powerful serum into three china tea cups. Shaygol sat across from us, waiting on us hand and foot and watching the Hindu flick. Occasionally he sent me devilish grins when Simantov wasn’t looking. The 19-year-old Muslim with Asian-slanted eyes was not the least perturbed by Simantov’s gruff manner, nor by his role of helper for the Jewish holiday. He appeared familiar with the traditions and had prepared all the food himself, including the haroset, which was delicious. Simantov said Shaygol’s parents took care of Kabul’s Jewish cemetery. “Come on,” said Simantov, as he got up to do the ritual washing of the hands. Shaygol poured the water.

The Seder was interspersed with talk. At the beginning of the evening I had told him that I interviewed Massouda Jalal, the minister of women’s affairs, earlier that day, and that she was very keen to meet him. Somewhere between the second and third glasses of wine he suddenly asked me, “Massouda Jalal wants to meet me? Sure?” Indeed she did. She said she had read in a book about Afghan ethnicities that the Jewish Afghans were the smallest group. I told her that there was only one left and I had yet to find him. She asked me to have him call her secretary if I did.

Simantov’s cellphone rang, too. For about five minutes after eating the bitter herbs with the haroset he spoke to a friend from Herat who had called to wish him a happy Pessah. The Muslim Afghan had traveled with Simantov to foreign countries for business. Nowadays business is “no good,” said Simantov. Ever since the Taliban left and President Karzai came, there has been no business, he said. Then he read the part of the Haggada that in Simantov’s case was not particularly truthful. “At present we celebrate here, but next year we hope to be in the Land of Israel. This year we are servants here, but next year we hope to be free men in the Land of Israel.”

Simantov is no servant; nor is he eager to go to Israel. His last visit was in 1998, he said, and he’s not rushing back. Afghanistan is his home. But the strangest part of the evening was when we sang “Dayenu.” As Simantov finished reciting the first sentence and said the word dayenu, he grabbed a long green onion from the plate and with a quick move lashed me on my shoulder. Shocked, I froze. After the second line, he lashed me again. By the third line I got the idea and grabbed myself an onion. He became quiet when I started singing the fourth line loudly. He knew what was coming. “Dayenu!” I said with a smack across his shoulder. I continued loudly with the fifth and sixth lines, each time lashing him with the long green onion. By the seventh or eighth line he joined in and we whipped each other till the end of the song. Afterwards I asked, “Afghan?” referring to the unusual custom. “No,” said Simantov pointing to the prayer book as if it were written somewhere that we should beat each other with green onions. I looked at Shaygol, who had watched the whole scene with a big grin, and wagged my finger. We all burst out laughing. It was truly a unique Seder.

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