Sara Aharon, Telling the Afghani-Jewish story
Of the roughly 1,000 Afghani Jews living in the U.S. today, most reside in Queens. Like Sara Aharon. Her father, like many Afghani Jews, emigrated from Afghanistan in the 1950s. He married a woman who was part-Ashkenazi, part-Sephardic (Iraqi Jews with family from Iraq), and they gave birth to Sara here 26 years ago. “I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker,” Aharon said. While she knew her father was Afghani growing up, neither he nor his fellow Afghani Jews talked much about it. “They tend to stress the future,” she said. “I grew up not knowing anything what it was like to be Jewish in Central Asia.” That history was ignored at school, too. At her Orthodox girl’s yeshiva, as well as at Brandeis, where she got her undergraduate degree, “all the Jewish courses were rich in Ashkenazi history,” she said, “but no one really focused on Jewish life in the Middle East [before Israel’s establishment] or Central Asia.”
So she did some research herself. The result is her widely admired book, “From Kabul to Queens: The Jews of Afghanistan and Their Move to the United States,” which grew out of her college thesis and was published last year. The current U.S. war in Afghanistan prevented her from traveling there for research — in any event, reports are that only one Jew remains there — but she relied heavily on Jewish Afghani émigré archives here and in Israel. Unlike the Jewish experience in the Arab world, for instance, Afghani Jews — who are ethnically Pashtun, not Arab — didn’t experience nearly as much anti-Semitism in the 20th century as did European Jews. Israel’s creation and the Palestinian conflict, moreover, are of little interest to Afghanis, she said. And what motivated the mass exodus of Jews from the country in the 1950s and ’60s — when the community was at its peak, at around 6,000 Jews — were better economic opportunities in the West, rather than overt oppression. Aharon is now casting a wider net on the Jewish past: she’s currently working towards a Ph.D. in Jewish history at NYU. She hasn’t settled on her dissertation topic yet, but she doubts it’ll be on Afghani Jewish history. That topic has already been well trod — by her.