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The Last Jews of Afghanistan celebrate a Special Seder

by Brent Lewin, Afghanistan Correspondent

  Passover Seder in Afghanistan

Passover Seder in Afghanistan.

He has been accused of betrayal, of murder, and of working as a spy for Israel's Mossad. His name is Zebulon Simintov and he is the last Jew in Afghanistan. The title is a new one for Simintov, who for years shared the distinction with Isaac Levin, the other of "the last 2 Jews of Afghanistan". The two men's relationship brings to life the old folk story of the 2 Jews who live in the same place yet go to different synagogues. In Simintov and Levin's case however, there was only one synagogue in Kabul and both chose to live out their days at opposite ends of the decaying building, locked in a bitter feud. The origin of the quarrel is said to back to 1998 during the rule of Taliban regime. Each accused the other of wanting to sell the synagogue and its sacred lambskin Torah. Feelings of betrayal turned into hatred when the Taliban confiscated the holy scrolls. Each Jew denounced each other and leveled charges ranging from converting to Islam to running a brothel. Both were subsequently imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban for their religious convictions. After the fall of the Taliban, Simintov and Levin each vowed independently to secure the Torah's return to Kabul. Aside from insults and threats, the estranged odd couple didn't speak for years. This relentless and hostile feud finally ended in the only way possible when in March 2005 Isaac Levy passed away.

Afghanistan synagogue

Jewish synagogue in Kabul.

With this history in mind I entered the unassuming Flower St. synagogue in Kabul to attend a Passover dinner hosted by Zebulon Simintov. Aside from the stench of gasoline I am surprised to see decorative Stars of David carved into the wall, a sight almost as strange as a UFO in the Islamic republic of Afghanistan. An Afghan boy who is Simintov's helper gives me a brief tour of the defunct synagogue. Although it was once able to accommodate a congregation of 30, it is now occupied only by thick layers of dust and tattered prayer books.

Down a narrow hall and into a cramped room, greetings are exchanged with the last Jew of Afghanistan and 4 other Western guests. We remove our shoes and take our seats on the cushions that are arranged around a bed sheet table on the floor. Simintov, a middle-aged man, is dressed in traditional Afghan garb. He is not accustomed to such a large crowd of strangers and appears quite nervous, combing what little hair he has compulsively and breathing heavily.

Suddenly, Simintov starts reciting prayers from a pile of unbound moldy pages scattered in front of him. Huddled together in a circle on the floor of this damp second story room in the Islamic republic of Afghanistan, it feels as if we are taking part in something forbidden.

  Passover prayer book

Passover prayer book.

Simintov's helper hands out Haggadahs (Passover prayer books), donated by the US Army, along with boxes of matza that a synagogue in Brooklyn, New York has had flown in. He then pours homemade wine from Soviet-era vodka bottles, a reminder of the Soviet invasion, and Simintov's forbidden love for all beverages containing alcohol.

Simintov takes charge of the Seder and sings songs from the Haggadah in perfect Hebrew while the rest of us are transported back in time, helplessly drawn in by the passion and fervor of his canting. Though, occasionally I can't help being brought back to reality by the television in the corner of the room airing Indian soap operas.

Passover wine

Passover wine.

Across town a more formal Seder was taking place at Camp Phoenix, a US Army base where fellow Jews were equipped with camouflaged yamakas, non-alcoholic wine, and Passover 'ration packs', each consisting of a miniature version of the symbolic foods which make up the Passover plate.

Back at Simintov's Seder we flagellate each other with leek-like vegetables during the dai-ay-new prayer, breaking down in laughter. Kabul city power cuts out halfway through the dinner and we are forced to use our cell phones for light. When the 2 light bulbs in the room come to life with power once again, Simintov's assistant serves us generous portions of delicious turkey kebab, chicken legs, and boiled vegetables.

Most of the guests at the Seder are living in Kabul under company-imposed curfews, so we thank Simintov and excuse ourselves shortly after midnight. On the ride home, drunk off the ceremony and homemade wine, I think about the parallels between the story of Passover and the history of Jews in Afghanistan. Passover is the story of the Jews escaping the tyranny of the Pharaoh. Afghanistan has an 800-year-old history of Judaism and at one time was home to over 40,000 Jews. Nazi-spawn anti-Semitism, Soviet occupation, and the eventual seizure of power by the Taliban forced growing numbers of Afghan Jews to flee their homeland throughout the years, seeking religious freedom in places like Israel and the United States. Only Zebelon Simintov and Isaac Levin chose to stand their ground facing countless obstacles to preserve Afghanistan's Jewish heritage and enduring tremendous hardship to take care of the synagogue and to protect the holy Torah. Both men suffered and struggled for the same cause in the same land, but for some reason insisted on going at it alone.

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