Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The last known Jew in Afghanistan is shutting the synagogue and leaving

After centuries, Afghanistan will lose its last member of another minority this year.

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For over 15 years he has lived alone in his synagogue in Kabul, rarely leaving the rundown building, always peering out at the warring factions battering the city. But he has survived.

However, now the last known Jew in Afghanistan is packing up and moving to Israel, marking the end of an estimated 2,000-year-old Jewish community which has traditionally existed in a fractious relationship with the locals but never entirely left.

By 2004, where once there had been thousands, there were just two Jews left in Kabul, Isaac Levy and Zabulon Simantov, living at separate ends of the dilapidated Kabul synagogue.

They regularly denounced each other to the authorities, and both spent time in Taliban jails. Then in January 2005, Levy died of natural causes.

Now the man who has been known as the last Jew in Afghanistan for well over a decade is leaving for Israel, fearing that the US military’s promise to leave the country will leave a vacuum that will be filled again with radical groups such as the Taliban.

Simantov, 61, plans to leave after this year’s High Holidays season in the autumn.

“I will watch on TV in Israel to find out what will happen in Afghanistan,” he told the Arab News.

A carpet and jewellery seller, he was born in the western Afghan city of Herat, near the border with Iran. Decades ago it was home to hundreds of Jews.

After fleeing to Tajikistan for an undisclosed time, he returned to Afghanistan with a new wife and settled in Kabul.

His wife, a Jew from Tajikistan, and their two daughters left for Israel in 1998 but Simantov stayed in Kabul to tend to its only synagogue.

Through decades of violence and political turmoil, including a period of Taliban rule when the “scholars” confiscated his Torah, and through the country’s war with the US, he tried to keep the building from falling down.

“I managed to protect the synagogue of Kabul like a lion of Jews here,” he told the Arab News.

Without him to function as caretaker and congregation, the synagogue will close.

He is concerned about what will happen when the US military and its allies finally withdraw.

“If the Taliban return, they are going to push us all out with a slap in the face,” he told Radio Free Europe last week in a programme about the exodus of the country’s remaining minority populations.

That broadcast wasn’t his first brush with fleeting fame.

The cantankerous relationship between himself and Levy, his last neighbour, was dramatised in a play inspired by reports of the two which appeared in international news media following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

The play, entitled “The Last Two Jews of Kabul”, was written by playwright Josh Greenfeld and staged in New York City in 2002.

Simintov’s departure will mark the final departure of the actual last Jew of Kabul and with him Afghanistan’s Jewish heritage.

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