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Afghanistan: Kabul's Last Two Afghan Jews Battle System, Each Other, For Return Of Torah

  • Theodor Alexe

It sounds like a rabbinic parable: The only remaining Jews of Kabul add up to just two, Zabulon and Isaac, and they hate each other. Their mutual hatred has caused them to lose their Torah and overshadows their daily life. And with them, a whole community and culture will soon disappear from the Afghan capital.

Kabul, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Isaac Levy and Zabulon Simantov are the last two Jews remaining in Afghanistan and they hate each other. Worse still, they live in the same building, a dilapidated concrete synagogue built in the 1960s. Living on either side of a partition, neither man enjoys a comfortable existence. The cement walls drip with moisture; the windows are covered with plastic sheets.

Each man claims to be the last Jew in Afghanistan. Levy, who is in his seventies, accuses 41-year-old Simantov of not being a true Afghan Jew because he lived for a time in Turkmenistan. Simantov, in turn, says Levy converted to Islam during the Taliban regime and even goes so far as to refer to himself as a mullah, or Muslim religious teacher. Given the opportunity, each of the men will eagerly recite a litany of complaints about the other.

Their mutual hatred is based on a dispute over the sacred "Torah of Kabul," a medieval manuscript of unique design that was confiscated by the Taliban. The militia removed the Torah from the synagogue after Levy and Simantov denounced each other for alleged offenses ranging from religious harassment to running a brothel.

Since the collapse and departure of the Taliban, each man has waged an individual fight to secure the Torah's return. Simantov yesterday visited the Interior Ministry as part of his efforts. He has been accused by his rival of attempting to obtain the Torah in order to sell it. It is a claim that Simantov dismisses unconvincingly, inquiring at the same time how much such an artifact might fetch at an international auction.

At the Interior Ministry, Simantov says, employees demanded substantial bribes of cash, car parts, and lamb meat in exchange for the Torah's return. He also says they asked why he didn't simply convert to Islam. But Simantov, who says he was subject to fierce beatings by the Taliban for failing to convert, says he will never give up his faith.

Simantov and Levy are all that are left of a once 40,000-strong Jewish community in Afghan. Following the Soviet invasion, those numbers dropped to several hundred and have since trickled down to nearly nothing.

Since the Taliban were routed from Kabul, the two men have become objects of curiosity for the many foreign journalists flooding into the country. Levy says he doesn't even remember how many of them he has spoken to in the past few months.

It has been years since either of the two men have seen their families, who emigrated to Israel. Levy says the last time he saw his wife and five children was in 1984. Since then, he has lived alone in Kabul, trying to protect the synagogue. Recently, his wife in Israel filed for divorce, a development for which Levy says his neighbor is to blame.

"He lies; he's lying all the time," Levy says. "He has written to my wife telling her that I married another woman here, and that's why my wife is angry with me now."

In turn, Simantov is convinced that it is Levy who reported him to the Taliban, who arrested and beat him, and took away the Torah. Simantov has this to say about his rival: "He lies, he's lying all the time. He transformed this synagogue into a brothel. He says that he wants to go to Israel, but this is not true. Even if the Jews came here and tied his hands and feet and put him on an airplane, he would not go to Israel. This dirty old man has not washed himself for six full months, I tell you, for six months."

In the end, both men agree to reconcile, although Levy says it is only the presence of a journalist that has persuaded Simantov to agree. The older man says sadly of his neighbor: "I would like to be really reconciled with him, but he doesn't want to. When I die, who will bury me in the tradition of my religion?"