Sunday, September 20, 2009

Don't talk about the Taliban, eat! - last Afghan Jew

Photo: LA Times

In-depth feature on the gruff, whisky-loving Zebulon Simantov, Afghanistan's only Jew, by Mark Magnier in the Los Angeles Times. Simantov manages to keep kosher, slaughtering his own chickens, and celebrates the Jewish New Year with all the symbolic foods.

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.

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1 comment:

Victor said...

In 1998, I saw an exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on the Jews of Afghanistan. I recall that the claim was that the earliest Jewish communities in Afghanistan dated to the 4th century CE. This is slightly different from what is reported here. Never mind. The fact remains that Jews have lived in Afghanistan for a very long time, and most likely since before the birth of Islam.