The precarious life of Zabulon Simintov, the last Jew in Afghanistan

Despite becoming something of a celebrity over the years, the Kabul kebab shop owner faces a daily struggle to make ends meet

kabul

Zabulon Simintov always removes his kippah, the skullcap worn by Jewish men, before entering his café in a dilapidated building which houses Afghanistan’s last synagogue.

“Let me take off my cap, otherwise people will think something bad about me,” Mr Simintov said cheerfully as he descended grime-caked stairs to the ground floor café.

In his 50s, Mr Simintov is the last-known Afghan Jew to remain in the country. He has become something of a celebrity over the years and his rivalry with the next-to-last Jew, who died in 2005, inspired a play. Mindful of Afghanistan’s extremely conservative Muslim culture, Mr Simintov tries not to advertise his identity to protect the Balkh Bastan or Ancient Balkh kebab café he opened four years ago, naming it after a northern Afghan province.

“All food here is prepared by Muslims,” he said.

Now the café, neat and shiny, faces closure because kebabs are not selling well – largely because of deteriorating security in Kabul that has made people frightened to eat out or visit the city.

Mr Simintov used to rely on hotel catering orders but even these have dried up as foreign troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, further weakening security and investment.

“Hotels used to order food for 400 to 500 people. Four or five stoves were busy from afternoon to evening,” he said.  “I plan to close my restaurant next March and rent its space.”

At lunchtime, a single table was occupied, with a pair of customers ordering tender meat on long skewers and other Afghan dishes.

Neither appeared to know about Mr Simintov’s history and said they came only because a café next door that made a special dish of Afghan noodles had shut down.

Little is known about the origins of Afghan Jews, who some believe may have lived here more than 2,000 years ago. A cache of 11th century scrolls recently discovered in the north provided the first opportunity to study poems, commercial records and judicial agreements of the time.

The community was several thousand strong at the turn of the 20th century, spread across several cities but having limited contact with fellow Jews abroad. They later left the country en masse, mostly for the newly-created state of Israel.

Mr Simintov’s wife and daughters also left for the Jewish state, but he decided to stay behind with his Afghan “brothers”. A native of the western border city of Herat, the cradle of Jewish culture in Afghanistan, Mr Simintov displays dog-eared posters and prayer books when he shows visitors around the dilapidated synagogue.

He pulled a “shofar” – the ram’s horn used for Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement – from a dusty cupboard and blew into it with little effect.

Mr Simintov also maintains a nearby cemetery, marked by little more than a few broken pieces of stone in an unkempt yard.

Other religions have fared even worse than Judaism.

There are no Afghan Christians left, at least none who is open about it, and the only permanent church is inside the Italian diplomatic compound. There is a small Hindu population, but it is shrinking rapidly.

Mr Simintov’s personal ill fortune is linked to the increasing risks of running a business.

More than a dozen years since the US-led invasion toppled the hardline Taliban movement to end its five years in power, fear of bombs, shootings and crime is still part of daily life.

Mr Simintov said the café had lost $45,000 and all the valuables collected by his father were stolen before the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

He hopes that renting the café’s space might generate enough money to renovate the synagogue.

Much of the whitewashed building’s interior, including the synagogue’s floors and walls, are covered in a black film. It survived the Taliban, but the contents were ransacked.

However resolute Mr Simintov remains about practising his faith, he is embittered – even enraged – by misfortune and by the failure of the US-led Nato force to create conditions for peace and security without the threat of the Taliban.

“It is better to see a dog than to see an American,” he said.

“If the situation in the country gets worse, I will escape.”

Reuters

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before