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Afghanistan’s Last Jew to Close Down Kebab Cafe

Zablon Simintov blames U.S. troop withdrawal for stalled business

Rachel Silberstein
November 13, 2013
Zablon Simintov blows a ram’s horn at the sole synagogue in Kabul on Sept. 15, 2007. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)
Zablon Simintov blows a ram’s horn at the sole synagogue in Kabul on Sept. 15, 2007. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)

After only four short years of business, Zablon Simintov, The Last Jew in Afghanistan, says he plans to shut down his kebab restaurant next month, citing increased violence and the impending U.S. troops withdrawal, Reuters reports.

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 Simintov’s history and said they came only because a cafe next door that made a special dish of Afghan noodles had shut down.

Jonathan Garfinkel profiled Simintov for Tablet earlier this year, finding an unlikely but unwavering guardian of the country’s Jewish heritage.

I found him on Flower Street at the synagogue known by locals as “the Jewish Mosque.” It’s the last shul standing in Kabul, and nobody goes to it anymore—no one but him. The corrugated-iron door was laden with Stars of David. The dome was barely hanging together. A heavyset man wearing a kippah came to the door and asked what the hell we wanted. Qais—an Afghan friend, carpet-seller, and writer with a peculiar obsession with Holocaust literature, who’d brought me there—told him I was a Jew. The last Jew in Afghanistan looked at me with scorn. “So what?” he seemed to be saying. “What’s another Jew?” Then he turned his back and said, “Come on.” I followed him into the synagogue compound.

In the 1950s, a significant majority of the once flourishing Jewish population in Kabul, including Simintov’s wife and children, immigrated to Israel, while a smaller community settled in Queens (a narrative only recently put to paper by young author Sarah Aharon in her 2011 book, From Kabul to Queens).

Simintov, who remained behind to protect the synagogue, the last vestige of Jewish life in Kabul, is no stranger to turmoil. The shul—and Simintov—survived five years of Taliban rule, bombings, lootings, invasions and war. The synagogue’s white walls have been coated with black and Simintov has since been made famous by a decades-long, ugly rivalry between him and the second to last Jew in Kabul (who died in 2005), which became the subject of a play. But now Simintov says it’s NATO’s failure to stabilize the region after toppling the Taliban in 2001 that might just be the final straw.

“It is better to see a dog than to see an American,” he told Reuters. “If the situation in the country gets worse, I will escape.”

Rachel Silberstein is a writer living in New York.