Zevulun Simantov stands in the center of the dusty synagogue on Flowers Street in Kabul on the eve of the Jewish New Year, and tries to elicit sounds from his shofar.
With just one day left before Rosh Hashana, Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew is very worried he won’t have a minyan.
“This year I’ll be alone for the holidays,” he told me. “Over the past years Jews from the American army bases and relief organizations came, at least then we had enough for a minyan.”
“I pray that one day all the Jews that left will return, and once again the Jewish community will flourish,” he said.
Simantov, 45, lives alone in the synagogue. Up until five months ago he had a Jewish neighbor, 70-year-old Yitzhak Levin, and together the two constituted Afghanistan’s Jewish community.
However, they were arch-enemies and over recent years hardly spoke to each other.
Simantov: Levin betrayed me, he wasn’t normal
During the Taliban regime, both men sat in prison.
“I was tortured, beat, chained, and hit with Kalashnikov rifles just because Levin betrayed me,” Simantov said. “He went to the Taliban and told them I was a spy.”
However, prior to his death, Levin also accused Simantov of betraying him and said he too had turned him into the Taliban.
But one morning five months ago, Levin passed away.
Police were quick to arrest Simantov on suspicion of murder. Luckily for him, an autopsy revealed that Levin had died of natural causes.
“He was crazy,” Simantov said. “I do not want to speak badly of the dead, but he really wasn’t normal.”
When I arrived at the synagogue, located at the heart of a prestigious Kabul neighborhood, the blue entrance door was locked. One
of the children on the street volunteered to hurl stones at the window of Simantov’s second-floor home, explaining that is the way he is usually asked to open the door.
Later, I asked him why he does not leave and join his wife and two daughters, who left Afghanistan six years ago and immigrated to Israel. He replied that “If I weren’t here the Taliban would destroy the synagogue. They already tried to demolish it a number of times and have also taken the Torah scroll from the Holy Ark. I am staying here to guard the building.”
Interested in camera and money
However, some in the neighborhood say Simantov’s reason for remaining in the synagogue is less heroic. They charge that he considers the building his private property and hopes that one day somebody would offer to buy it for an appropriate sum. The locals also told me that Simantov was in the past a carpet dealer and has recently sold his business.
During my visit Simantov held a Hebrew prayer book in his hands, and explained that he can read but does not understand it.
At a certain point, he turned to the translator accompanying me and without told him that he is very interested in my camera and also in money, if possible. The translator was embarrassed, but conveyed the message. At that moment I remembered that in the past, synagogue visitors said Simantov asked them for whiskey bottles and phone cards.
When I asked why he needs the money, he explained, “I don’t need anything for myself, it’s all for God.” He also told me, rather aggressively, that I have to give him something, “But not some 30 dollars like you give beggars.”
Before I left I give him a 50-dollar bill, but to be honest, I did it mainly to protect the camera.
“I only work for God,” he said again when we parted. “You come from America. If you can, tell the rich Jews over there to come and help me take care of the synagogue. That’s the important thing.”