‘Last Jew’ in Kabul finds muslim friend to share synagogue
By Waheedullah Massoud
‘I have known them for 20 years ... it has nothing to do with Islam. I am a Muslim in my heart. He has his religion and I have mine’
Zebulon Simentov, 45, says he is the only Jew left in Afghanistan since the death of his neighbour Ishaq Levin and now feels so lonely that he shares the small synagogue where he lives in Kabul with a Muslim friend.
It is difficult to check his claim, but nobody in Kabul was able to name any other living descendants of Abraham. On the other hand, many people knew Zebulon Simentov and Ishaq Levin, who died on January 18 of old age and diabetes at the age of 80. Now “I am the only Jew in Afghanistan, we all know each other, so we would know if there were others,” said Simentov, wearing a long Afghan tunic and a kippa, the traditional Jewish skullcap.
Levin and Simentov were both born in Herat, the main city in western Afghanistan, where a small Jewish community stayed put even after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
“I knew him since I was 13, our houses were facing each other,” said Simentov. Around 25 years ago life in Herat started to become difficult.
“The mujahideen militias started bothering us. We sold our shop ... and we came to Kabul,” he said.
“They were asking for money,” he said, stressing that it was not a question of religion.
The Simentov family, which ran a grocery and traded in carpets and skins, then left western Afghanistan for Kabul, like Levin’s family.
During the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, about 40 Jewish families still lived in Kabul, according to Simentov. The civil war between mujahideen factions which followed (1992-96) and then the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime drove out those who had remained.
At the start of the civil war in 1992, Simentov tied the knot in an “arranged marriage” to a Turkmenistan Jew. He left and returned, alone, in 1998 under the Taliban. According to Simentov, for his part, Levin always remained in Kabul, letting his four children and wife, expecting a fifth, depart for Israel. “I said ‘let’s go to Israel, I will help you’. He said ‘No, I want to stay here’,” Simentov recalled.
The two men started to live together in the small synagogue on Flower Street, which is filled with shops selling flowers and traditional clothing, which finds a ready market among the foreigners working here.
Under the prayer room, on the ground floor of the building where only the iron guardrail evokes the Star of David, lived Levin, already an old man. On the other side of the central patio, on the floor, lived his fellow tenant Simenov, who then was in the business of exporting antiquities and Afghan products.
An argument about a copy of the Torah, the Jewish sacred texts, poisoned their relationship.
Simentov said Levin denounced him to the Taliban, accusing him of wanting to sell abroad the synagogue Torah that he believed was valuable.
Levin had several years ago told an AFP journalist that his fellow tenant tried to send him away.
According to Simentov, the two men were briefly arrested by the Taliban who kept the Torah. But they both remained in the synagogue, and argued over who was in charge of taking care of it. Now alone, Simentov does not intend to leave and envisages continuing to divide his time between Israel, where his wife and children live, and Afghanistan.
“I am used to this place... I have no choice,” he said, referring to his financial difficulties.
“If the situation gets better, other Jews will come.”
But Levin is dead and Simenov, despite everything, misses the old man. “We were like the muscle and the bone,” he said.
Feeling lonely, Simentov found a new fellow tenant in Mohammed Amir, 25, a Muslim guard of one of the two Jewish cemeteries in Kabul.
“Because he was alone, he asked me to live with him,” said Amir, wearing a black tunic, Muslim skullcap and sporting a trimmed beard, adding it was a provisional arrangement. “I have known them for 20 years ... it has nothing to do with Islam. I am a Muslim in my heart. He has his religion and I have mine.” afp