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The last Jew in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan – Behind a metal door on Flower Street, past a courtyard piled with junk, up some steep concrete stairs and along a narrow corridor with ornate metal railings in the style of Stars of David, lives the last Jew in Afghanistan.

His home is a side-room off the synagogue; a thin mattress laid along one wall is his bed. In one corner, there is a small table with dusty prayer books, three folding chairs, a crumbling carpet, and a few pictures on the wall, including one of a bearded Hassidic Jew. In the corner by the door, opposite the guest's chair, there is a small blackboard with his name spelled clearly in chalk: Zebulon Simantov. "So that journalists spell my name correctly," he said. 

"Who do you work for?" Simantov asked straightaway.

"NBC News," I answered proudly.

Image: Zebulon Simentov
AP file
Zebulon Simantov, 45, poses at the synagogue in Kabul on Jan. 25, 2005.

"So can you give me lots of money," he said, his tone turning a question into a blunt demand.

"No, I'm afraid not."

"Did you bring me whiskey?"

The interview, which I had looked forward to ever since I received the assignment to visit Kabul, quickly became an embarrassment.

"I bring greetings from a friend of yours in Israel," I said.

"That bastard," Simantov said, spitting out a nut, "he's no friend of mine!"

I knew that Isaac Levy, a Jew who lived in another room in the synagogue, making this odd couple the last two Jews in Afghanistan, had died three years ago. I expressed sympathy.

"Huh," Simantov answered, "I was glad when he died. I didn't speak to him for years. He tried to get me killed."

About 5,000 Jews left Afghanistan after the creation of Israel in 1948, and others left after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

No answers
By now, I was squirming, so I decided to get to the questions that had brought me here. "You're the last Jew in Afghanistan, the last in a community of tens of thousands stretching back centuries," I said. "How do you keep kosher? How do you pursue Jewish rituals? How do you maintain your religion and belief? How do your Muslim neighbors treat you?"

Each question to which I had expected a soulful response elicited instead an answer whose only virtue was its honesty.

"He owes me money," Simantov suddenly erupted, stabbing at the piece of paper on which I had written the name of his alleged friend in Israel.

Simantov, stocky and muscular, was clearly a man of some passion, channeled not into religious fervor but fury.

"Where is my money? Because of him Taliban put me in jail for six months! I can show you the papers!" He scrabbled around and produced customs receipts and a long price list of artifacts and carpets he had bought at the request of his former friend. "I borrowed money to buy this, and he never paid me!"

I clucked in sympathy and decided to move to what I considered safer ground.

"You last saw your wife and two daughters in 1986. Today they live in Israel. Do you miss them?"



I had expected a soulful man, and found this clown.

VIDEO: Fletcher reports from Afghanistan on a road less traveled

Still, I persevered, and asked him to show me the synagogue. We put on our shoes and he led me to a room at the end of the corridor. It was quite a large room facing the Haaron Hakodesh, a cupboard containing the holy Torah scroll. He opened its small wooden doors. It was almost empty. I knew the scroll was believed to have been stolen by the Taliban.

Simantov took out the shofar, a curved ram's horn blown on Jewish holidays. He mumbled a prayer and puffed weakly, without making a sound. He offered it to me and I declined. Hebrew inscriptions carved into rock were built into the walls. Dust lined the window sills and covered the floor, and heat wafted in through cracks in the window frames.

"So how much can you give me?" Simantov asked, "A donation for the synagogue." He smiled as he said it. Negotiations ensued, which, to put it mildly, left him unsatisfied.

What a disappointment. But then I thought, we're in Afghanistan, where at roadblocks police routinely demand a bribe and "cigarette money" has always greased the wheels. Foreign aid workers complain that corruption is everywhere and backhanders are a universal irritant.

There was no reason my coreligionist should be different from his countrymen. After all, he had no job beyond maintaining the synagogue, and as he pointed out bluntly: "You make money out of my story, why shouldn't you pay me?"

Still, the last Jew in Afghanistan wasn't what I had expected. Maybe I was naïve.   

As I closed the car door, Simantov's parting shot was: "Come back with whiskey! Two bottles! Johnnie Walker!"

And as we pulled away we heard the muffled, "Black label!"