Jewish Journal

Last days for Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 16, 2013 | 10:41 am

Kabul, courtesy Reuters

Eight years ago, Zablon Simintov became Kabul's last Jew when his arch rival, Ishaq Levin, died. But it's unclear how much longer he hold that title. Simintov says his kebab business has fallen on hard times:

Now the cafe, neat and shiny, faces closure because kebabs are not selling well - largely because of deteriorating security in Kabul that has made people frightened to eat out or visit the city.

Simintov used to rely on hotel catering orders but even these have dried up as foreign troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, further weakening security and investment.

"Hotels used to order food for 400 to 500 people. Four or five stoves were busy from afternoon to evening," he said. "I plan to close my restaurant next March and rent its space."

Naturally, he blames his poor sales on the United States. It seems that Simintov thought the troops would always be there, meaning more security and lots of mouths to feed; he also told Reuters that Americans are worse than dogs. The logic is a bit circular.

But Simintov said that if life in Afghanistan worsens, he may finally leave Afghanistan, which once boasted a vibrant Jewish community.

The decline of Afghani Jews is pronounced and near complete. But it's not unusual for the region. In Afghanistan and neighboring countries, non-Muslims generally have fared terribly.

No Afghani Christians remain. (Remember the South Korean missionaries?) Iraq too has seen its Jewish community dwindle to almost none and its Christian population plummet. Same too for Christians and Jews in parts of the Levant outside Israel.

Maybe its a western perspective, but this strikes me as a major loss. Pluralism fosters stronger, better reinforced, communities. And the presence of people from minority groups also says something to outsiders. Not that the presence of a lone Jew in Afghanistan is going to--nor should it--convince the rest of the world that the Taliban are pretty tolerant guys.

But what about outsiders who would visit and find in this Afghani anomaly something profound? Like Jonathan Garfinkel. He visited Simintov in Kabul three years ago, inadvertantly rediscovering the Jewish identity he'd rejected:

What was his Judaism, this congregation of one? He clung to it, life, whatever there was of it left. But what did he have? Kabul was a ruined city, bombed to shreds after four decades of war. Why wouldn’t he want to be in Israel with his family, his people?

“I won’t let Jewish history die in Afghanistan,” said Simintov.

He took me to the synagogue. It felt more like a museum than a place for sanctuary and prayer. The last Torah had been stolen by the Taliban. Books were charred and moldy. The walls were white, recently painted, and a thin blue gate encircled the bimah. Simintov took out a shofar from the ark, put it to his mouth, and posed.

He prayed alone, ate alone, lived alone. It was a life he chose. Simintov wasn’t exactly a biblical prophet in the style of Ecclesiastes or Jeremiah, alone in the desert waiting for revelation. But his stubborn independence was his Judaism. Maybe this is what it means to be Jewish, I thought. To go against the grain.

That, at the very least, is lost. And so too will be the last remnant of a once-bustling, if unfamiliar, Jewish community.

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