Sunday, September 23, 2007

Last Jew in Afghanistan marks Yom Kippur alone

Zebulon Simentov, the last Jew in Afghanistan, is once again marking the Jewish holy day of fasting in solitude, in a deserted synagogue in the capital of a devoutly Islamic nation.

"I have everything I need for the 24 hours of praying and fasting," Simentov tells AFP before the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at sunset on Friday.

Around two decades ago, there were still about 20 Afghan Jewish families living in Kabul, although all were from Herat -- the largest city in northwestern Afghanistan near the border with Iran.

Through the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the subsequent civil war and the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime, all went to Israel or moved to neighbouring former Soviet republics -- undoing a Jewish presence built up from the seventh century.

Only Simentov has been left behind, becoming by default the guardian of Kabul's empty synagogue.

The room where he receives visitors was once a prayer room for women. On the wall are pictures of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the late ultra-orthodox Lubavitch rabbi, Menahem Scheerson.

Adjoining this room is the bare-walled "small synagogue" for men, where he prefers to pray.

Simentov, approaching 50, dislikes the "big synagogue" across the corridor -- another large and dirty room in which stands only a platform traditionally reserved for the rabbi.

A cupboard built into the wall faces Jerusalem. Its doors are open and it has been stripped of its treasure, a scroll of the Torah.

The precious document was stolen by a Taliban during the rule of the Islamist movement which was driven from government six years ago by a coalition led by the United States.

The man "wanted to sell it, thinking it was valuable," Simentov says in Dari, one of the main languages in Afghanistan. He says he reads Hebrew perfectly but prefers not to speak it.

"Today that Taliban is jailed at Guantanamo Bay and I am waiting for him to be freed so I can ask him to return the Tables of the Law," says Simentov, who wears a Jewish cap called a kippa, but is otherwise dressed like an Afghan.

Simentov is alone. His wife and two children are in Israel, which he says he has not visited since 1998.

"I have been the only Jew in Afghanistan for two years," he says. Ishaq Levin, the synagogue's former guardian, died from illness two years ago aged around 80.

Simentov says it is not easy to practise his religion alone.

But he has obtained special permission from a rabbi in Tashkent, capital of neighbouring Uzbekistan and home to 15,000 Jews, to slaughter his own meat in the kosher way that can normally only be done by a special rabbi.

Otherwise this former carpet salesman appears perfectly integrated into Kabul, where he is well-known by people who live around the synagogue, and warmly greeted when he is outside.

Jews have lived in several regions of Afghanistan and legends abound about their presence.

One says the Pashtuns, one of the main ethnic groups in Afghanistan, descended from a tribe from Israel. Another says the name Afghanistan comes from Afghana, grandson of King Saul -- the first king of the ancient Kingdom of Israel.

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