Keeping the faith

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The first question Zebulon Simentov asked his uninvited guest, eyes wide open at the prospect: “Are you Jewish?”

There was a tinge of disappointment when the reply came back negative, but the last Jew standing in Afghanistan didn’t miss a beat.

“Humanity is one; religion doesn’t matter,” he said.

Moments later, a Muslim friend entered the room, unfurled a prayer rug in the corner and bowed toward Mecca. An open box of Manischewitz matzos sat next to an empty bottle of whiskey on a table nearby.

Locals refer to Mr. Simentov, 47, simply as “the Jew.” Originally from the western city of Herat, he dons a yarmulke with his shalwar kameez and swears that “half of Kabul” knows him, though probably not for the reasons he would like to think.

His only other co-religionist in the country, Yitzhak Levin, died in January 2005. The pair lived together in the Flower Street synagogue through the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the Taliban regime.

And they grew to hate each other.

Among other antics, they held separate services, had vicious shouting matches that neighbors say could be heard down the street and denounced each other to the Taliban as spies for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

Both received beatings for their trouble.

Mr. Simentov said the fight broke out nearly a decade ago when Jewish elders told him to bring Mr. Levin — more than 20 years his senior — to Israel.

Mr. Levin would not budge, and each man accused the other of wanting to sell the synagogue for profit.

When valuable Torah scrolls disappeared, the blame game resumed until a Taliban court acquitted Mr. Simentov. The Torah was never recovered.

So intense were their subsequent spats that Afghan police suspected Mr. Simentov when Mr. Levin died, until a postmortem examination showed the death was from natural causes.

Now Mr. Simentov lives alone in the crumbling two-story building, where wrought-iron railings in a Star of David motif could use a fresh coat of blue paint and the courtyard garden has gone to waste.

With a brush of the hand, he dismissed having a change of heart since his rival’s death. No love has been lost.

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