Afghan Jew a one-man upholder of tradition
It’s not easy representing centuries of Jewish tradition single-handedly. Especially if you’re in a war-torn Muslim country. But Zebulon Simantov, who claims to be the last Jew in Afghanistan, is doing his best.
At the start of this weekend’s Jewish New Year, he lighted three candles, changed into a traditional Afghan shalwar kameez outfit and donned a black yarmulke. He navigated around his Muslim helper, who was wrapping up his Ramadan prayers, and, for 45 minutes, swayed, bowed and intoned Rosh Hashanah prayers while an Indian game show blared from a corner TV.
“I’m the only Jew in Afghanistan,” the 57-year-old said. “It’s a big responsibility. Yes, I wish there was a larger community. But I keep kosher and maintain the tradition.”
Simantov lives like the confirmed bachelor he is in a broken-down building that houses Kabul’s last synagogue. His living area is lighted with a single fluorescent bulb, and well-worn Afghan carpets serve as his bed, floor covering and eating surface. A few feet away is his soot-blackened kitchen, from whose open window he periodically tosses waste water down onto a rubble-filled courtyard.
He slaughters his own chickens and sheep in keeping with kosher dietary laws. Normally only a specially designated person can do this, but Simantov said he has obtained permission from a rabbi in Uzbekistan.
“Sometimes he washes the sheep meat so many times, I wonder if he’ll wash all the protein out,” said Shir Gul Ameri, 22, an Afghan who helps with Simantov’s chores.
There’s a lot Simantov doesn’t discuss, either because he can’t remember or prefers not to talk about it. For instance, why he decided to stay in Kabul, enduring civil wars, the Soviet occupation and Taliban rule. That took some doggedness, which may partly explain his gruff personality.
“Don’t talk about the Taliban, just eat,” he barked. “Everyone had trouble with the Taliban. Very bad people.”
But after a few whiskeys -- he favors Johnnie Walker -- a less intimidating side emerges as he welcomes strangers to his Rosh Hashanah Seder replete with heaping plates of mutton kebabs, chicken, okra, squash and grapes.
“From my Muslim friend in Herat,” he said, pointing to the grapes. “Most all my friends are Muslims now, since there are no Jews left.”
Legend has it that the first Jews arrived in Afghanistan 2,700 years ago, with historical records suggesting a continuous population since the 8th century. By the mid-19th century, the country had 40,000 Jews, many of whom had fled from forced conversion in Persia, now Iran.
But the numbers dwindled, from 5,000 by the middle of the 20th century to a few hundred by the time the Soviets invaded in 1979, with many relocating in Israel. The last rabbi left in 1987, and by the late 1990s, reports suggested that only Simantov and Isaac Levy (more on him later) remained.
As Simantov celebrated the arrival of the year 5770 of the Jewish calendar, he interspersed prayers with symbolic New Year’s food -- leeks, apples dipped in honey, dates, beets and pomegranate -- in rapid-fire, often mumbled Hebrew. Midway through the meal, he produced a box of matzo sent by a friend in the United States. “Crunchy with a good snap,” the box reads.
The main synagogue area, down the hall, is a large, dusty space with an altar near a plaque marking the temple’s dedication in 1966. There are a few sheets of Hebrew text, but the antique Torah is gone, much of the Star of David grillwork is in disrepair, and a host of broken lights bears testament to a congregation that no longer comes, laughs or celebrates.
Born in Herat, in Afghanistan’s northwest, Simantov attended Hebrew school before moving to Kabul, the capital, when he was 27. In 1992, he fled to Tajikistan to get away from Afghanistan’s growing violence, married a Tajik Jew and had two daughters. The family emigrated to Israel in 1998, but he returned to Kabul two months later, leaving his wife and children behind.
“Personal problems,” he said, waving off further questions with a growl.
On his return, he moved into Kabul’s only synagogue, where Levy, its longtime caretaker who was also from Herat, resided. “He had nowhere else to live, so he lived here,” helper Ameri said of Simantov.
The association between the two Jews, however, would turn into a fierce hatred, leading to the brief arrest of both men by the Taliban and the loss of the synagogue’s centuries-old Torah.
“It sounds like an ancient rabbinic parable,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote in 2001. “The infighting of the last two remaining Jews of a village costs them their Torah.”
Their falling-out is another thing Simantov doesn’t much like to talk about. But family and local residents said the two lived for years on separate floors, held separate religious services and fought so fiercely that their antics became legendary up and down Kabul’s Flower Street.
“They would yell at each other all the time,” Ameri said.
Mayer Simantov, an older cousin of Simantov who was also born in Herat and now lives in Queens, N.Y., said the dispute started in part because his cousin wanted to send the Torah to Israel for safekeeping, but Levy said it wasn’t his to send.
At some point, Simantov also encouraged Levy to move to Israel, prompting Levy to accuse him of having designs on the synagogue property, which is in a prime Kabul neighborhood.
As their squabbling intensified, Levy reported his housemate to the Taliban-run government, Mayer Simantov said, accusing him of trying to steal the Torah. The Taliban responded by seizing the holy scroll and jailing both men. Despite extensive efforts, the Torah was never found, the cousin said.
With no sign after the fall of the Taliban that their spat would abate, religious leaders in New York and Israel tried to mediate, but the mudslinging continued. In 2002, Levy told reporters that Simantov was an Israeli spy who had converted to Islam, even as the two continued living in the same run-down building, mostly avoiding each other.
The feud ended only when Levy died in 2005, apparently of diabetes, at age 80. He was eventually buried in Israel.
Simantov said he has few special childhood memories of Rosh Hashanah. His best memory is of the ceremony a year or two after the Taliban fell, when a dozen Jews from various countries joined him in celebration.
“Each brought a bottle of whiskey and I cooked for people from New York, Los Angeles, England, Poland, Germany and Scotland,” he said.
“Nowadays, everyone is concerned about the security of Afghanistan. Hardly anyone comes anymore. What can you do?”