Afghanistan’s last Jew fights to keep his home — the country’s sole synagogue
Since 2005, Zabolon Simantov has lived alone in Kabul’s only synagogue. In this volatile region, he is the final guardian of a once-flourishing 1,500-year-old Jewish community
KABUL, Afghanistan — Each Friday, 52-year-old Zabolon Simantov showers and shaves in preparation for the Jewish day of rest. On Saturdays, as 30 million Muslims living in Afghanistan begin their work week, he shuts down his business and dresses in his finest for the Shabbat morning prayer service.
Simantov lives alone in the dilapidated building that houses the country’s last functioning synagogue in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
For centuries, the country’s Jewish community — estimated to be as large as 40,000 strong at its peak — filled many synagogues every Friday night and Saturday. Over time, however, the community gradually declined to 10,000, to hundreds, to 10, to two — and eventually to one single Jew, Simantov.
Simantov says he remains in Afghanistan to save the final house of worship and keep the Jewish community alive.
“I stay to care for the synagogue,” he says. “If I was not there, the land would have been already sold off.”
According to Simantov, the son of powerful warlord and religious leader Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf already destroyed a Jewish cemetery in Kabul Province and sold the land.
The synagogue is located in Kabul’s downtown, where real estate prices are among the highest in the city. To help disguise the fact that a synagogue is sitting nearly empty in such a sought-after neighborhood (and to help earn a living), Simantov has turned the place into a restaurant named the Balkh Bastan, or Ancient Balkh, which offers lunch and dinner. He also maintains a nearby cemetery as the last member of a once flourishing community.
A 1,500-year-old Jewish history
Simantov’s presence in Afghanistan is the last vestige of a history going back up to 1,500 years, with Jews from both the east and west settling in the country sandwiched between the Middle East and Central Asia.
Dr. Davood Moradian, a politician who previously served under president Hamid Karzai and heads the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, is one of the country’s rare experts on Afghanistan’s Jewish community.
“Two separate Jewish communities lived in Afghanistan,” says Moradian, who received his PhD from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
“There was a community native to Afghanistan, and then another which immigrated here [more recently], taking refuge from Central Asia, where the situation deteriorated for them under Soviet rule,” Moradian says.
Moradian adds that the native Afghan Jews were mainly concentrated in the western city of Herat, an ancient metropolis thought to date back to 500 BCE. The community, however, was not strictly confined there; Jews inhabited major Afghan cities such as Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Ghazni.
In 2013, researchers discovered a trove of rare Afghan-Jewish documents dating from the 11th to 13th centuries. The documents, ranging from letters and articles related to family business to copies of religious and biblical texts, were found in the caves of Afghanistan’s central Bamyan Province.
In September 2016 the National Library of Israel made public 250 of these medieval Afghan texts, which were written in several languages, including Persian, Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, and Hebrew. Receipts written between Jews and Muslims suggested that the two groups lived harmoniously together, traded, and conducted business with one another.
Israel’s creation in 1948 drew most of the country’s remaining Jews, and in the 1960s, many more left the country to pursue better economic prospects in New York and Tel Aviv.
Moradian notes that anti-Semitism was not the reason for the mass exodus, as Afghanistan was the only Muslim country that allowed Jewish families to emigrate without revoking their citizenship.
Decades of war divide a family
Among those who opted to emigrate were Simantov’s relatives. Born and raised in Herat, Simantov moved to Kabul in 1980 — by which time few Jews remained in the country. Struggling to find a wife at home, Simantov traveled to Turkmenistan. Upon marrying and returning to his native country, however, he found that the political situation had taken a drastic turn for the worse as the Soviet-Afghan War escalated.
Fearing for her safety, Simantov sent his new bride to Israel, where she currently lives with the couple’s two daughters not far from Tel Aviv. The situation in Afghanistan did not soon improve: in 1996, the Taliban rose to power, kicking off their short-lived regime. By then, the only two Jews left in the country were Simantov and an older man named Isaac Levy.
Ironically, Simantov and Levy did not get along at all. They became arch-enemies and continually denounced one another to the oppressive Taliban authorities. This resulted not only in the detention, beating and torture of both — but in the confiscation and sale of Afghanistan’s only Torah scroll, as well.
By the time of Levy’s death at age 80 in 2005, the United States coalition had toppled the Taliban regime. Even now, Simantov has no good words to say about his former rival.
“He was old,” Simantov says, still condemning Levy. “He was a bad person. He wanted to sell the synagogue.”
But with Levy’s death, Simantov was left completely alone — his wife had also severed ties with him years before.
“I went to Israel once for two months in 1998,” Simantov recalls. “After that, I used to talk to my daughters on the phone, but my now wife doesn’t let me talk to them anymore.”
In such a volatile area, it’s dangerous to have few allies. Simantov’s synagogue home, and the last vestige of Jewish life in Afghanistan, is vulnerable to attack should some extremist group decide to target it.
“I am a lion,” Simantov describes himself. “Nobody can threaten me.”
After a pause, he adds quietly: “I barely go out to the street. Death is close.”
Most of the time, Simantov stays up on the second floor of the compound, which he partially renovated to help the restaurant turn a bigger profit. But even the post-renovation income isn’t enough to fully support him, so Simantov augments his income with a jewelry trade he inherited from his father.
Simantov barely survives in the crumbling compound he calls home. His real home, he says, is in Israel.
“Say ‘Shalom’ to Israel,” Simantov, who speaks little Hebrew, tells a reporter in his native Persian Dari. “I love you, Israel.”
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