A Congregation of One
When I met the last Jew in Afghanistan, I rediscovered the Jewish identity I’d rejected years before
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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Growing up religious, I missed out on a lot that other kids enjoyed. But looking back, I wouldn’t change it.