Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Last Afghan Jew's tale mirrors community's story

Zablon Simintov, the last Jew in Afghanistan, is still haunted beyond the grave by the second last Jew, with whom he bickered constantly. And as this piece from the (Canadian) Gazette shows, on the shoulders of the last Jew rests the particularly tricky task of protecting what is left of Jewish community assets from theft and encroachment. (With thanks: Albert)

"In a way, Simintov’s personal history mirrors that of his people, whose 800-year history in Afghanistan seems destined to end with him.

"At the turn of the 19th Century the community was at its height. The population swelled to 40,000 as Persian Jews seeking refuge from the forced conversions in neighbouring Iran flooded over the border to settle in Afghanistan.

"It was only the creation of Israel in 1948, that convinced them to move again.

"When the exodus was over, the Jewish population numbered just 5,000. And it shrunk again with the Soviet invasion in 1979, when thousands fled the ensuing violence and repression. Indeed, Simintov even left the country for a six-year hiatus in Israel and Turkmenistan where he met and married his wife Elena. She now lives in Holon, Israel, with the couple’s two daughters.

"But despite the blood ties and his sorry situation in Kabul, Simintov has no plans to return to Israel.

"He cryptically insists: “I don’t have anything to go back to.”

“I have problems,” he says.

"One of those problems, it seems, is the issue of the synagogue’s Torah, its sacred scroll, which was confiscated by a Taliban official years ago and still has not been returned. (...)

“They should cut his hand off,” he says of the official who confiscated the Torah. It is the Taliban punishment for theft and apt in this case, he thinks.

"In the meantime, Simintov spends most of his days and nights alone. He continues to have an easy relationship with neighbours such as Nasir and he says many others in the Islamic Republic have accepted the Jewish presence in their midst without hesitation.

“We are simple people, no one says anything to each other,” Nasir says. “We are free with him.”

"The Jewish legacy in Kabul’s crowded streets tells another story, however.

"Simintov looks after the last remaining section of the city’s Jewish cemetery.

"It is on a hillside in the city’s south end and he has to pay a family of four brothers to occupy the land for him. They, alone, stand guard against its disappearance. The brothers have erected a tall wall around the plot of land, in hopes of fending off gradual encroachment by the Muslim residents of the neighbourhood who already have taken over most of the original burial ground.

"It sometimes seems a futile measure, since more than a decade ago most of the tombstones were bulldozed when the Afghan government tried to clear the land of housing, but Simintov either thinks it is sufficient, or doesn’t want to ruffle feathers."

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