- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan To the glow of candles and the soft cadence of Hebrew blessings, the Jews of Kabul celebrated the first night of Hanukkah in a city finally free of harsh Taliban rule. But there were only two of them and each was alone.
At separate ends of a dilapidated synagogue that was once the heart of a vibrant Jewish community, its two remaining members, estranged by a long feud, were together only long enough to argue briefly about whether yesterday indeed marked the first night of the holiday.
One grudgingly accepted the other's word. Then they parted, to go about their solitary commemorations.
As the sky outside began to darken, Ishak Levin's old hands trembled as he lighted one crooked candle, then another. The synagogue's main hall was dim and cold; his menorah was the plank of a dusty old table.
"Praised be the Lord, king of the world, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah candle," Mr. Levin, a Persian Jew in his 70s, chanted in slurred Hebrew.
In a small, bare room across a cracked concrete courtyard, the two candles of Zebulon Simentov, a 42-year-old Jew from Turkmenistan, glowed on the sill of a window patched with plastic sheeting.
"I prayed for the end of the Taliban, so this is a joyous time," he said. He bowed his head, covered with a skullcap, to recite his own blessings.
Despite their common happiness over the collapse of the Islamic militia under which both said they suffered, the two could not set aside their enmity on this night.
"He is a bad person I am afraid of him," Mr. Levin whispered, locking the door of the tiny, carpet-lined ground-floor room where he lives.
"That man is my enemy," Mr. Simentov said sternly as soon as he had finished his prayers.
Hanukkah, commemorating the victory of an outnumbered band of Jewish fighters and the rededication of the defiled Temple of Jerusalem, is traditionally one of the festive highlights of the Jewish year. It lasts eight days, recalling the legend that a single flask of ritually pure oil burned in the Temple's candelabrum for that span.
Both men said they would light candles every night of Hanukkah but not together.
"For a thousand and thousand years, our forefathers have celebrated these nights, and now Jews all over the world are celebrating too," said Mr. Levin. "But with him it is not possible."
The origins of their feud are murky, but both Mr. Levin and Mr. Simentov were jailed by the Taliban authorities after reporting each other for suspected offenses. They accused each other of wrongdoing ranging from running a brothel to misappropriating religious objects. Each denies the other's claims.
Being deprived of the companionship of other Jews and of one another is for these two men the final blow in the erosion of a once-proud and flourishing community.
In the late 19th century, as many as 40,000 Jews lived in present-day Afghanistan, many having fled persecution in Persia, now Iran.
By mid-20th century, about 5,000 remained, but most emigrated after the creation of Israel in 1948. The 1979 Soviet invasion drove out nearly all the rest, but Mr. Levin the synagogue's shamash, or caretaker stayed on.
Mr. Simentov, a carpet merchant, returned to the capital about eight years ago after roving Central Asia for his business. By then, the community had dwindled to the point that they were almost the only Jews left in Kabul.

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