The Last Jew in Afghanistan Has No Plans to Leave
The first question Zebulon Simentov asked his uninvited guest, eyes wide open at the prospect: “Are you Jewish?”
There was a tinge of disappointment when the reply came back negative, but the last Jew standing 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 motsas sat next to an empty bottle of booze on a table nearby.
Locals refer to Simentov, 47, simply as “the Jew.” Originally from the western city of Herat, he dons a yarmulke 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. 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 Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. 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 Torah was never recovered. So intense were their subsequent spats that Afghan police suspected Simentov of murder when Levin died, until a post-mortem examination 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 kill 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 Persian Jews fled from forced conversions in neighboring Iran.
The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the 1979 Soviet invasion combined to empty the community. 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 of joining 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 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.”