Last Jew in Afghanistan Faces Ruin as Kebabs Fail to Sell

KABUL (Reuters) -
Zabulon Simintov, an Afghan Jew, prays at his residence in Kabul November 5, 2013. In his 50s, Simintov is the last known Afghan Jew to remain in the country. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)
Zabulon Simintov, an Afghan Jew, prays at his residence in Kabul November 5, 2013. In his 50s, Simintov is the last known Afghan Jew to remain in the country. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)

In his 50s, 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, Simintov tries not to advertise his identity to protect the Balkh Bastan or Ancient Balkh kebab cafe he opened four years ago, naming it after a northern Afghan province.

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

Now the cafe, 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.

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.

Not enough 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 Israel.

Simintov’s wife and daughters also left for the Jewish state, but he decided to stay behind

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.