The plight of the last Afghan Jew

ZABULON Simintov takes off his skullcap, or kippah, and enters the café in a rundown building that also houses Afghanistan’s last synagogue.
Zabulon Simintov dons his prayer shawl at his home. Picture: ReutersZabulon Simintov dons his prayer shawl at his home. Picture: Reuters
Zabulon Simintov dons his prayer shawl at his home. Picture: Reuters

“Let me take off my cap, otherwise people will think something bad about me,” Mr Simintov says as he descends grimy stairs to the ground-floor cafe.

As the battle-worn country’s last remaining Jew, Mr Simintov is conscious of being something of a celebrity. The next-to-last of his brethren died in 2005: their rivalry inspired a play.

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Mindful of Afghanistan’s conservative Islamic culture, Mr Simintov, who is in his 50s, tries not to advertise his identity to protect the Balkh Bastan or Ancient Balkh kebab house he opened four years ­ago, naming it after a northern province. “All food here is prepared by Muslims,” he says.

Now the neat and shiny café faces closure because kebabs are not selling well – largely because of deteriorating security in Kabul that has left people frightened to eat out. Mr Simintov used to rely on hotel orders but even these have dried up as foreign troops begin to withdraw. “Hotels used to order food for 400 to 500 people. Four or five stoves were busy from afternoon to evening,” he says. “I plan to close my restaurant next March and rent its space.”

At lunchtime, a single table is taken, with two customers ordering kebabs. Both were oblivious to Mr Simintov’s status, saying they only came to his kebab house because a nearby Afghan noodle restaurant had closed.

Little is known about Afghanistan’s Jews, who some say have been in the country for more than 2,000 years. A cache of 11th century scrolls recently discovered in the north provided the first opportunity to study poems, trade records and judicial agreements of the time. The community was several thousand strong at the turn of the 20th century, spread across several cities but with limited contact with fellow Jews abroad. They later left Afghanistan en masse, mostly for the newly created state of Israel. Mr Simintov’s wife and daughters also left but he decided to stay behind with his Afghan “brothers”. A native of the western city of Herat, the cradle of Jewish culture in Afghanistan, Mr Simintov displays dog-eared posters and prayer books when he shows visitors around the synagogue.

He pulls a “shofar” – the ram’s horn used for Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur – from a dusty cupboard and blows into it with little effect. He also maintains a nearby cemetery, marked by little more than a few broken pieces of stone in an unkempt yard.

Other religions have fared even worse than Judaism.

There are no Afghan Christians left, at least none who openly practise, and the only permanent church is inside the Italian diplomatic compound. There is a small Hindu population, but it is shrinking rapidly.

Mr Simintov’s ill fortune is linked to the risks of running a business. More than 12 years since the US-led invasion ended the Taleban’s five-year reign, fear of bombs, shootings and crime is still part of daily life.

Mr Simintov said the café had lost £28,000 and all the valuables collected by his father were stolen before the Taleban fell in 2001. He hopes that renting the space might generate enough to renovate the synagogue.

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Much of the whitewashed building’s interior, including the synagogue’s floors and walls, are covered in a black film. It survived the Taleban, but the contents were ransacked.

However resolute Mr Simintov remains about practising his faith, he is embittered by the failure of the US-led Nato force to create security and prevent the return of the Taleban.

“It is better to see a dog than to see an American,” he said. “If the situation in the country gets worse, I will escape.”