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A Congregation of One

When I met the last Jew in Afghanistan, I rediscovered the Jewish identity I’d rejected years before

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Zablon Simintov blows a ram’s horn at the sole synagogue in Kabul on Sept. 15, 2007. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)
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Congregation B’nai Kabul

Most of the time, Larry Bazer runs a shul in Massachusetts. But for the past six months, he served in the military as the only rabbi in Afghanistan.

Simintov didn’t have such qualms or questions. He knew what he wanted: cash for his story. I told him I’d make a donation to the shul before I left. He seemed annoyed.

“So, what do you want to know?” he asked.

“Where is your family?” I asked. “Where did everyone go?”

“There used to be several hundred families living here on Flower Street. They went to Israel during the civil war. My wife and daughter,” he explained. “They live in Israel, too.”

“And you never wanted to join them?”

“What do I want in Israel? This is my home. This is where I belong.”

On a small TV next to his bed, Afghan pop videos bounced up and down on the tiny screen.

“For over 1,500 years Jews lived in Afghanistan. I am from Herat—there were many Jewish families there, and yeshivas, too. I come from a line of rabbis. I studied to be a shoichet. I make my own kosher meat.”

“Do the neighbors bother you?” I asked, thinking about the warnings I’d received, the hatred I imagined stewing in the crumbling streets and markets of Kabul.

Simintov shook his head.

“The Taliban?” I asked. “Don’t they hate that you’re Jewish?”

Simintov laughed. “When they were in power, they wanted to pay me $20,000 to convert to Islam. So, I offered them $80,000 to become Jews.”

He bemoaned the loss of his carpet business—the Taliban had apparently stolen his collection of rugs. But he did not complain once about his situation as the country’s lone surviving Jew.

Up until fairly recently there were two Jews in Afghanistan, Simintov and Ishaq Levin. They got along well—for a time. The animosity began when Levin suspected that Simintov was trying to ship him off to Israel so that he could have the synagogue to himself. Simintov argued that he was simply worried about Levin’s health. Levin died in 2005, leaving Simintov alone. What struck me about Simintov’s situation was not so much the climate of hatred and fear, but his utter loneliness. He was practically forgotten. Invisible. And it was a role he’d chosen. Looking around the room, it didn’t make sense. What was his Judaism, this congregation of one? He clung to it, life, whatever there was of it left. But what did he have? Kabul was a ruined city, bombed to shreds after four decades of war. Why wouldn’t he want to be in Israel with his family, his people?

“I won’t let Jewish history die in Afghanistan,” said Simintov.

He took me to the synagogue. It felt more like a museum than a place for sanctuary and prayer. The last Torah had been stolen by the Taliban. Books were charred and moldy. The walls were white, recently painted, and a thin blue gate encircled the bimah. Simintov took out a shofar from the ark, put it to his mouth, and posed.

He prayed alone, ate alone, lived alone. It was a life he chose. Simintov wasn’t exactly a biblical prophet in the style of Ecclesiastes or Jeremiah, alone in the desert waiting for revelation. But his stubborn independence was his Judaism. Maybe this is what it means to be Jewish, I thought. To go against the grain.

Trying to understand the nature of one’s own existence is a task that befuddles the best of us. It’s why people turn to religion and the ancients in the first place. We want and need answers to the mysterious whatever that has brought us here. But what if religion was a question, and not an answer? What if God wasn’t a judge, but a window onto mystery? What if faith wasn’t about comfort, but discomfort, a cry into the intolerable void?

***

It’s been three years since I met Simintov. I still don’t pray, but I did go back to Pakistan this past September. On a number of occasions I was asked what my religious background was, and each time I answered: I’m a Jew. I was in Lahore during the Mohammed video riots, and it wasn’t a good place or time to be a North American, let alone a Jew. The signs on the street said: “Death to America.” Saying I was Canadian didn’t help either; the rumor on the streets was that CIA agents were using false passports from Western countries other than America. Danger was everywhere. But somehow I was calm. Sometimes I even answered my Muslim questioner’s curiosity by telling them what exactly a Jew is. Simintov’s lesson stayed with me—stronger than any rabbi’s or Hebrew teacher’s.

It’s still hard for me to reconcile an atheistic humanism with Judaism. But I’ve learned to accept there is something about the uncertainty of my Jewishness that I cannot live without. Even the emptiness I feel, the disconnect and the discomfort, are something I need: for my art and my life. Simintov’s philosophy—to follow your path, however strange—is something I can believe in. On certain days I even might believe in something like God. To go against the grain is to allow for these contradictions. Celebrate them, even. I wouldn’t deny my identity again, in Afghanistan or Pakistan, Canada, or America, even if it meant putting my life in danger.

***

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Poupic says:

Another Sone Israel!

41953 says:

One can be an “atheist humanist” and still be a Jew. It is not an either or proposition. It is called Secular Humanistic Judaism. For people like Garfinkel, it is worth a try.

Sharna Marcus says:

Being tortured about our identity and beliefs is part of our tradition. I enjoyed your take on it.

IndieReader94 says:

A fascinating journey—spiritual, personal and physical—and a great read. I grew up as a Christian, but then moved away in my late teens once I had the freedom to think at uni. I still miss aspects of my religious faith—community and sense of belonging, a definite explanation of reality and sense of purpose for one’s existence—but there’s no going back in the face of reason. God just ain’t there. Anyway, this article brightened an overcast spring evening here in London, quite unexpectedly, and for that I thank you.

Natan79 says:

He’s not that. He’s just not bright. He’s a rosh katan.

Keith Reitman says:

True. When I was a lad, I was told, “Son, remember, there is only one G*d; and we do not believe in him.”

There is also the tribe of Israel which one can definitely belong to whether on not one is religious or believes. This is true in Israel too where there are many secular Jews.

lumiss says:

Thank you for this deep, special article!

Michael says:

You are so correct. Secular Israelis are a solid and growing “tribe” distinct from Ultra-Orthodox and other religious groups. Jewish religious groups are plentiful and splintering, which is sign of frustration and a struggle for survival. The Ultra-Orthodox don’t have a chance because they do not adapt to modern times. Their young generations will be leaving them very soon in large numbers.

Michael says:

He is very bright and not sone Israel at all. He is advanced and modern because he is questioning his ideas and beliefs, unlike the adukim who accept everything said by some who-knows-what authorities.

daized79 says:

He didn’t say not b a Jew. He said Judaism. The religion. Which obviously is irreconcilable with atheism, Keith’s bittersweet joke aside.

daized79 says:

He’s bright, but needs someone clearheaded to speak with him who isn’t close-minded. Hard to find sometimes.

daized79 says:

So I don’t get it… It was shabat and this religious Simantov was making tea and watching television? What did the Taliban do with the sefer tora and how is that part of Islam?

Zainab Hashimi says:

You have to meet me next time you visit Pakistan/Afghanistan!

What an amazing article! How much I wish people will respect each other’s religion and not stereotype them. Hatred is never a solution, it is a problem! THE problem indeed!
Loved your article!

Marilyn says:

Loved both of your articles. I am partial to articles about Afghanistan and I did go to a lecture at the 92nd St. Y in NYC given by Sarah Aharon. I also read her book from Kabul to Queens. I was under the impression while listening to her that the Afgan Jews that she spoke about living in Queens have no sentimental ties or connection to their past homeland. I visited
Kabul,Bamiyan, and Mazar-e Sharif in 1977 (?) the year before the Russian invasion. I stood in front of the tall Buddhas carved into the mountains in Bamiyan. At that time it never even occured to me to ask about Jews living there; and now I read every article about it. I worked for United Airlines and went on a familiarization trip hosted by Ariana, the Afgan airline. It was the most interesting and exciting trip that I will ever go on in my life and I didn’t blink for 8 days. I wish that I had been more pro active on trying to find out about the Jewish community in Kabul while I was there. Thank you Jonathan for your very interesting articles.

Tiborski says:

Sorry Jonathan, you missed something about the chosen people, you missed something about the Arabs trying to deny our homeland, your bleeding heart covered your eyes, the reality, understanding what it means Jewish, it is more just going to shul, eat kosher,it is to have Emuna, without it you can write your books, they have no meaning…you are now a wondering Jew , but without a Jewish soul, your philosophy plays exactly to those hands, who wanted us to destroy…

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A Congregation of One

When I met the last Jew in Afghanistan, I rediscovered the Jewish identity I’d rejected years before

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