The Last Jew in Afghanistan

There are, world-wide, only about 13 million Jews — a number totaling less than half the population of Saudi Arabia or about 18% of Iran’s.   Roughly 5.5 million live in Israel, with most (as many as 3 million) located near Tel Aviv.  Another 2 million live in the New York City area.   And exactly one Jewish person — Zablon Simintov (pictured at the top), age 51 or 52 — lives in the entire nation of Afghanistan.

In 1948, when the State of Israel declared its independence, the Afghani Jewish population numbered roughly 5,000.  But the Soviet invasion in 1979 lead to a mass migration, mostly to Israel, Pakistan, and the United States.  By the time the Taliban came to power in the late 1990s, only two Jews — Simintov and a man named Ishaq Levin — lived in the nation.   The two, together (but in separate rooms), lived in the ruins of the last remaining synagogue in Kabul starting in or around 1998, but quickly had a falling out: Simintov suggested that Levin, then in his late 70s, move to Israel, to escape the bitter cold weather in Kabul.  Levin took it as an affront, the two quarreled, and each reported the other to the Taliban for various alleged wrongdoings.  Each ended up imprisoned by the Taliban.  Even after Levin’s death, Simintov was not willing to forgive — upon finding Levin’s body on the synagogue floor, he told the Washington Post that he would not miss Levin.

Practicing Judaism is, understandably, quite difficult for Simintov.  Because he’s the only Jew around, keeping kosher requires that he perform the rituals typically performed by specialists (e.g. shechita, the ritual slaughter).  And in almost all regards — especially since the Taliban shut down his carpet trading business — he is reliant on the donations of others, both within the Kabul area and around the world.

Simintov’s wife and daughters live in Israel, and he may join them one day, as he stated in an interview with Al Jazeera English (video link).  But for now, he remains the last Jew in Afghanistan.

Bonus fact: Observant Jews keep kosher, and probably the most visible rule of kashrutrequires that observers refrain from eating pork products.  This is also true of observant Muslims, who follow a similar set of dietary laws (halal) which outlaws pork.  In Afghanistan, pork and pig products are outlawed across the board by the sectarian government, to the point where there is only one pig in the entire nation — at the Kabul Zoo.  In 2009, due to swine flu fears of visitors (even though the zoo noted they were irrational), the pig was quarantined.

From the Archives: Early Warning Lemurs: The story of another animal at another zoo.

Related reading: “The Last Jews of Kerala: The Two Thousand Year History of India’s Forgotten Jewish Community,” a book about a similarly waning community of Jews, this one in southwest India, once numbering in the thousands, now numbering in the dozens.  Three and a half stars on six reviews, one of which highlights some alleged inaccuracies with the book.  Available on Kindle.

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