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Afghan Jew Becomes Country's One and Only

A Single Death in Kabul Cuts Community in Half

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page A10

KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 26 -- When Zablon Simintov found Ishaq Levin sprawled on the cement synagogue floor last week, he immediately realized two things: His housemate and archnemesis of nearly seven years was dead, and he was now in all likelihood the last Afghan Jew still living in the country.

"I'm not sad about that," Simintov said with a frown Wednesday. He acknowledged dryly that he would not miss Levin, an octogenarian who apparently died of natural causes. Simintov, 44, had feuded bitterly with him for as long as the two men occupied separate rooms in the ruins of the only remaining synagogue in Kabul.

Zablon Simintov, whose wife and daughters live in Israel, is the only Afghan Jew known to be living in the country. "You get used to being alone," said Simintov, who resides in a synagogue. (Emilio Morenatti -- AP)

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Moreover, the former carpet trader said he had spent years watching Afghanistan's once vibrant Jewish populace shrink to virtually nothing. The community dated back 800 years and still numbered 5,000 in 1948, but most remaining families fled the violence and repression that followed the Soviet invasion of 1979.

"You get used to being alone," Simintov said as he rocked gently on a metal folding chair in his room on the second floor of the synagogue. It was small, with a matted red carpet, and furnished with only a threadbare bedroll, a metal table and a diesel-burning stove to ward off the winter chill seeping through cracks around a dusty window.

Simintov alternated between pressing candies and tea on visitors and wheedling them for money to relieve his evident poverty. Stocky and dressed in a loose beige tunic and trousers, he spoke Dari in the lilting, almost musical accent of Herat, a city near the Iranian border where he was born to a goat merchant. His curly hair was covered with a Jewish skullcap of black velvet.

The Taliban government, which was in power when Simintov returned to Kabul in 1998 after working for several years in Turkmenistan, did not look kindly on his faith. On many occasions, he said, Taliban officials carted him and Levin off to jail, where they were beaten with electric cables and rifle butts for days.

"The Taliban would shout at me, 'Why don't you convert to Islam?' And I would say, 'Not if you paid me one million dollars,' " Simintov recalled.

The Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001. The fact that both remaining Jews survived the Taliban's five-year reign is something of a miracle. Taliban authorities, determined to stamp out practices they considered un-Islamic, outlawed music, whipped men who failed to grow long beards and demolished two enormous Buddha statues that were carved into a cliff 13 centuries ago.

Kabul's synagogue, an unassuming, white-washed building that was erected around a small courtyard on Flower Street 40 years ago, may have escaped a similar fate because it was so modest, and also because it was deserted and in disrepair when the militia came to power after a four-year civil war that virtually destroyed Kabul.

Still, in 1998, after Levin and Simintov were released from their first detention, they found the Taliban had ransacked the synagogue for almost all items of value it still contained, including a silver pointer and four tiny silver bells. A few months later, a Taliban commander confiscated its last, most precious treasure: a handwritten Torah scroll that Simintov estimates was about 400 years old.

Simintov blames Levin for that loss. The two men had been friendly acquaintances long before Simintov returned from Turkmenistan. Simintov, whose apartment was destroyed during the civil war, moved into the synagogue, and Levin, already living there as a caretaker, initially welcomed him. But Simintov said they fell out within a month, after he offered to help Levin move to Israel.

"I thought it was too cold for him to stay in Kabul. But he got very angry about that. He was very old and just not right in the head," Simintov said. The two also quarreled about Levin's work as a fortuneteller and maker of amulets for Afghan women. "This is against our religion," Simintov said.

Finally, he claimed that Levin tried to get rid of him by telling the Taliban he was a spy. According to Simintov, when Levin found out that he wanted to send the Torah to Israel for safekeeping, he objected and told the Taliban that Simintov was trying to sell it.

"The Taliban arrested us both. Each time we were arrested . . . it was because of Ishaq," Simintov said. The Torah "was probably worth about $10,000, but Ishaq told the Taliban it was worth $2 million," he said. "So of course the Taliban came for it."

Now, Simintov said, recovering the Torah has become his mission. He recently sought help from officials at the U.S. Embassy and at the Afghan Interior Ministry. He said they told him the commander who took the Torah was now in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Simintov also hopes to find private donors to help refurbish the synagogue, which he said he always feared Levin would sell if he left the country.

"I didn't want anyone to finish the Jewish name in Afghanistan," he said. So he stayed on, trading carpets and handicrafts to support the wife and two daughters he had sent to Israel. But in 2001, he said, Taliban customs officials robbed his warehouses of all his supplies.

"I have nothing. I live like a dog," he complained. Now, having resisted leaving Afghanistan for so long, Simintov said he may consider joining his family in Israel. "This is the last house of the Jews," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company