The Last Jew

In­ter­est­ing story of a man who man­ages to live in hos­tile con­di­tions.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who con­trib­utes regularly to var­i­ous lead­ing publi­ca­tions.

Zablon Sim­intov be­came Kabul’s last Jew some eight years ago when his arch ri­val, Ishaq Levin, died. The pair had lived to­gether in a shabby syn­a­gogue on Flower Street through­out the Soviet in­va­sion, a civil war and the fun­da­men­tal­ist Is­lamic Tal­iban gov­ern­ment, but grew to hate each other. They held sep­a­rate ser­vices, had vi­cious shout­ing matches neigh­bors could hear a block away, and when valu­able To­rah scrolls went miss­ing, each blamed the other. They also de­nounced each other to the Tal­iban as spies for Is­rael's Mos­sad in­tel­li­gence agency, prompt­ing Tal­iban po­lice to beat them with ri­fle butts and jail them on oc­ca­sions.

Sim­intov says the fight broke out nearly a decade ago when Jewish el­ders told him to take 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. Sim­intov is the le­gal owner and plans to re­fur­bish the 42-year-old build­ing.

The feud was so in­tense that Afghan po­lice sus­pected Sim­intov of mur­der­ing Levin when he died, un­til a post-mortem ex­am­i­na­tion proved that he had died from di­a­betes.

Born in the western city of Herat, Sim­intov dons a yarmulke with the tra­di­tional loose pa­jama-like shal­war kameez and lives in the crum­bling two-storey build­ing where wrought­iron rail­ings are em­bla­zoned with the Star of David and the yard is over­grown with veg­e­ta­tion. He also claims "half of Kabul" knows him.

Things, how­ever, aren’t look­ing up for Sim­intov who says his ke­bab busi­ness has fallen on hard times. His café faces clo­sure be­cause ke­babs aren’t selling well given the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in Kabul that has made peo­ple fear­ful of eat­ing out­side or even vis­it­ing the city. Ear­lier, he would rely on ho­tel cater­ing or­ders but even these have dried up as for­eign troops are

with­draw­ing from Afghanistan, fur­ther weak­en­ing se­cu­rity and in­vest­ment.

Like many oth­ers in Kabul, he holds the United States re­spon­si­ble for his poor sales be­cause he thought the troops would al­ways be there – which meant more se­cu­rity and more mouths to feed. Even so, Sim­intov is re­source­ful as ever and has found a way to make some ex­tra money. Hav­ing been la­beled as the last Jew of Afghanistan, Sim­intov has be­come in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, par­tic­u­larly among the jour­nal­ist com­mu­nity. As a re­sult, Sim­intov claims he has been paid for ev­ery in­ter­view he has given down the years. Cit­ing vir­tual penury and a dis­like of media at­ten­tion as his fi­nan­cial mo­ti­va­tion, he then goes on to state, some­what proudly, that he re­ceives hand­outs from jour­nal­ists ev­ery week.

In the sin­gle room he calls home, he deals out a deck of busi­ness cards from the world’s media and lists the or­gan­i­sa­tions that have paid him, and how much. His stan­dard price is a few hun­dred dol­lars and a bot­tle or two of whiskey.

The Jewish com­mu­nity in Afghanistan traces its begin­nings to ex­iles from Assyria in 720 B.C. and Baby­lo­nia in 560 B.C. In the 10th cen­tury, the Karaite his­to­rian Yaphet ben Heli de Basra cited that the "Land of the East" (Afghanistan, Iran and south­ern Cen­tral Asia) had Jewish in­hab­i­tants. El-Idrisi, the Mus­lim ge­og­ra­pher (10991166), men­tioned Kabul's thriv­ing Jewish com­mu­nity in one of his many tomes. The city was a ma­jor hub 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 long gone.

By the late 19th cen­tury, the Jewish com­mu­nity across Afghanistan reached 40,000 af­ter thou­sands of Per­sian Jews ar­rived to avoid forced con­ver­sions in neigh­bor­ing Iran. While He­brew was spo­ken in syn­a­gogue and re­li­gious stud­ies, most spoke the na­tion's ma­jor lan­guage of Dari.

By the mid-20th cen­tury, about 5,000 Jews re­mained, but most em­i­grated to Is­rael af­ter its cre­ation in 1948. The 1979 Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan drove out nearly all the rest. By the end of the Soviet war in 1989, some 20 Jewish fam­i­lies re­mained in Kabul, each of which soon moved away, mostly to Is­rael.

Oddly, Sim­intov says he prefers the com­mu­nist pe­riod and even the Tal­iban to the cur­rent regime which he calls a "mafia regime." He says he had been a suc­cess­ful car­pet and an­tiques dealer un­til a state cus­toms of­fi­cial con­fis­cated $40,000 worth of his goods on what he calls bo­gus grounds, leav­ing him with noth­ing but the syn­a­gogue. He gets by, he says, with do­na­tions from Jewish groups abroad and sym­pa­thetic Mus­lim fam­i­lies.

Although Sim­intov'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, who lives in Is­rael. He be­lieves the syn­a­gogue is worth a hefty sum for its cen­tral lo­ca­tion in one of the cap­i­tal's main com­mer­cial dis­tricts. Re­ports in­di­cate the two men were at log­ger­heads for some time, with both vy­ing for con­trol of the syn­a­gogue and both say­ing that they had been tor­tured un­der Afghanistan's hard­line Tal­iban regime.

Mean­while, Sim­intov scrapes by on his dwin­dling sav­ings. A thin bedroll, some fold­ing chairs and a flimsy ta­ble are his only fur­nish­ings, and he wears a thread­bare Afghan tu­nic and baggy trousers over his short, stocky frame. Sim­intov ad­mits that his lone­li­ness and the pres­sures of life as a Jew in Afghanistan wear on him. Doubt­ful that any Jews will re­turn to Afghanistan, he says he's not sure how long he'll stay.

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