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Keeping the faith

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2007

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.

No one comes to worship at the synagogue anymore, but he continues to pray every day and keep kosher, he said.

A couple of years back, he paid a visit to the rabbi of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, who gave Mr. Simentov the authority to kill his own animals because no other qualified Jews could be found for hundreds of miles.

This was not always the case, Mr. Simentov said, explaining that there were more than 40,000 at the turn of the 19th century as Persian Jews fled from forced conversions in neighboring Iran.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 1979 Soviet invasion combined to empty the community.

Mr. Simentov said he preferred the communist period and even the Taliban to the current government, which he calls a "mafia regime."

He said he was a successful carpet and antique dealer until state customs "stole" a container full of $40,000 worth of his goods on bogus grounds, leaving him with nothing but the synagogue.

At this point, he rubbed his fingers for a handout.

"So what are you going to do for me?" he said.

Although Mr. Simentov's wife and two daughters left for Israel years ago, he has no plans of joining them any time soon.

He is concerned that there may be a property dispute with Mr. Levin's son over the synagogue, which is worth a hefty sum for its central location in one of the capital's main commercial districts.

"Go to Israel? What business do I have there?" he said, adding that he doesn't speak Hebrew. "Why should I leave?"

In the courtyard below, Shirgul Amiri, 20, watered a bed of pathetic-looking roses.

He said he comes to the synagogue a couple of days a week at his parents' request to keep Mr. Simentov company, acknowledging that the older man is in a grumpy mood more often than not.

"He drinks a lot and is very impatient," Mr. Amiri said with a laugh. "But if you had brought a bottle of whiskey, he would have been in heaven."