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