Last Jew in Afghanistan Faces Ruin as Economy Withers

Zabulon Simintov's Kabul Kebab Shop Empty

Bad Times: Zabulon Simintov, thought to be Afghanistan’s last Jew, is facing ruin as his cafe business dries up.
Bad Times: Zabulon Simintov, thought to be Afghanistan’s last Jew, is facing ruin as his cafe business dries up.

By Reuters

Published November 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Zabulon Simintov always removes his kippah, the skullcap worn by Jewish men, before entering his cafe in a dilapidated building that also houses Afghanistan’s last synagogue.

“Let me take off my cap, otherwise people will think something bad about me,” Simintov said cheerfully as he descended grime-caked stairs to the ground-floor cafe.

In his 50s, Simintov is the last known Afghan Jew to remain in the country. He has become something of a celebrity over the years and his rivalry with the next-to-last Jew, who died in 2005, inspired a play.

Mindful of Afghanistan’s extremely conservative Muslim culture, Simintov tries not to advertise his identity to protect the Balkh Bastan or Ancient Balkh kebab cafe he opened four years ago, naming it after a northern Afghan province.

“All food here is prepared by Muslims,” he said.

Now the cafe, neat and shiny, faces closure because kebabs are not selling well - largely because of deteriorating security in Kabul that has made people frightened to eat out or visit the city.

Simintov used to rely on hotel catering orders but even these have dried up as foreign troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, further weakening security and investment.

“Hotels used to order food for 400 to 500 people. Four or five stoves were busy from afternoon to evening,” he said. “I plan to close my restaurant next March and rent its space.”

At lunchtime, a single table was occupied, with a pair of customers ordering tender meat on long skewers and other Afghan dishes. Neither appeared to know about Simintov’s history and said they came only because a cafe next door that made a special dish of Afghan noodles had shut down.

Little is known about the origins of Afghan Jews, who some believe may have lived here more than 2,000 years ago. A cache of 11th century scrolls recently discovered in the north provided the first opportunity to study poems, commercial 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 having limited contact with fellow Jews abroad. They later left the country en masse, mostly for the newly created state of Israel.

Simintov’s wife and daughters also left for the Jewish state, but he decided to stay behind with his Afghan “brothers”.

DUSTY AND DILAPIDATED

A native of the western border city of Herat, the cradle of Jewish culture in Afghanistan, Simintov displays dog-eared posters and prayer books when he shows visitors around the dilapidated synagogue.

He pulled a “shofar” - the ram’s horn used for Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement - from a dusty cupboard and blew into it with little effect. Simintov 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 is open about it, and the only permanent church is inside the Italian diplomatic compound. There is a small Hindu population, but it is shrinking rapidly.

Simintov’s personal ill fortune is linked to the increasing risks of running a business.

More than a dozen years since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban movement to end its five years in power, fear of bombs, shootings and crime is still part of daily life.

Simintov said the cafe had lost $45,000 and all the valuables collected by his father were stolen before the Taliban were ousted in 2001. He hopes that renting the cafe’s space might generate enough money to renovate the synagogue.

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

However resolute Simintov remains about practising his faith, he is embittered - even enraged - by misfortune and by the failure of the U.S-led NATO force to create conditions for peace and security without the threat of the Taliban.

“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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.