A Disappearing Community
Tue, 01/24/2012
CHRYSTIE SHERMAN. Zevulun Simantov, the last Jew living in Afghanistan, in the courtyard of the synagogue, also his residence.
CHRYSTIE SHERMAN. Zevulun Simantov, the last Jew living in Afghanistan, in the courtyard of the synagogue, also his residence.

‘You’re from Afghanistan? Is that in South America?”

Such was the comment my surprised grandfather received from one curious and well-meaning New Yorker, decades ago. In this post-9/11 world, it’s hard to remember sometimes that Afghanistan did not always dominate the news. Yet Afghanistan, for me, always held a completely different meaning: the country that my grandparents and their baby boy, my father, eagerly and voluntarily left to start over in the new Jewish state during the 1950s. They eventually made their way to New York in 1964.

My paternal grandparents used to live in Herat. Both their families had been in this famed western Afghan city since the 1700s. In Afghanistan the Jews’ lives revolved around religion; the vast majority observed traditional Judaism quite strictly. No named Jewish movements — such as Reform or Conservative Judaism — were transplanted from Europe to Afghanistan. To be “Jewish” or “religious” in this isolated country essentially held the same meaning, namely adherence to laws regarding prayers, the Sabbath, kashrut and ritual observance. 

By the 20th century Afghanistan’s total Jewish community numbered just 5,000-6,000 souls, with about 1,000 in Kabul, the more modern capital, and the rest in Herat.

I’m a born and bred New Yorker, yet my Jewish heritage spans the globe. In addition to Afghanistan, my family background ranges from Baghdad to Eastern Europe (near Kiev) to Canada. My education afforded me many valuable opportunities to learn about my European Jewish side, both in the classroom and on summer touring excursions. But few courses, whether Jewish or regular history, discussed Jewish communities who lived in the Middle East and Central Asia.

And no one mentioned Afghanistan. It was as if the country my father was born in, the place where thousands of Jews once lived  barely existed, except as a memory.

Today, Afghanistan’s entire Jewish community numbers just one.

A single middle-aged Jewish man resides in Kabul’s main synagogue. He decided to stay in Afghanistan, for undetermined reasons, though his family long ago moved to Israel. Some readers may be familiar with the Cain-and-Abel-type story that he and another Jewish man used to live in Kabul, alternatively fighting with or barely speaking to each other, until the latter passed away several years ago.

I’ve heard innumerable jokes about this, that two Jews can’t even share the same Torah or synagogue. Yet the true heart of the matter is the fading — or near disappearance — of Jewish communities in areas where Jews had lived for hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years.

Three years ago, photographer Chrystie Sherman traveled the lonely and dangerous road to Kabul hoping to capture the life of the one Jew, named Zevulun Simantov, living in Afghanistan. She met with him at the synagogue. The surrounding city looked like a “war zone,” she said, a ravaged and defeated “Wild Wild West” of Central Asia. Kabul’s synagogue was built from cement, lending it a “bunker”-type feel. Sturdy.

But in the synagogue’s inner courtyard, among the tough and unyielding concrete blocks, stood rose bushes.

The roses, with their vivid, brightly colored flowers, were tended to by Simantov. These rose bushes were “thorny,” said Sherman. “Maybe it’s metaphorical.”

With a lone, aging Jew in Afghanistan, ultimately the country will not have any Jews in its vicinity — maybe for the first time in millennia. Afghan Jews proudly believe that they descend from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, dispersed by Assyria in the eighth century BCE.

This eventuality strikes me sometimes. What does it mean to descend from a Jewish community that has essentially vanished from its country of origin? How does one continue the remembrance of Jewish life in places nearly impossible to visit or observe in person? 

Sharing individual stories, cuisine, music — the markers of a cultural heritage — can serve as one form of transmission. On a personal level, whenever I eat traditional Afghan Jewish dishes (usually mixtures of rice and meats) it’s simply because I like the sweet flavors. Lately I’ve thought about how I’m enjoying dishes that were also gobbled up excitedly hundreds of years ago.

But the recent tremendous discovery of a geniza in northeastern Afghanistan may advance our knowledge considerably about Afghan Jewish history. In late December 2011, the Israeli media station Channel 2 reported that at least 150 fragments from this geniza — located near the famed Silk Road — had already been identified. The geniza contained documents written in ancient Persian, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, reflecting its writers’ different countries of origin. The geniza materials included excerpts by Saadiah Gaon, biblical texts and even jewelry, such as rings with distinctly Hebrew names on them (like “Shmuel bar Yosef”). The Afghanistan geniza may be one thousand years old, said Channel 2, and could be the most important breakthrough for studying the medieval Jewish world since the Cairo Geniza. 

Regarding the past two centuries, there’s a particularly significant and little-known piece of Afghan Jewry’s story — its overall positive relations with the surrounding Muslim populace. Afghanistan’s Jewish community lived in relative peace with its Sunni Muslim neighbors. They often worked closely together in the mercantile trade, the main form of income for nearly all Afghan Jewish men. Afghan Jews specialized in importing and exporting goods, such as silks and carpets. Islamic law prohibited Muslims from dealing with certain economic practices like interest and usury, and so Afghanistan’s Jews (and Hindus) were freer to work in business and trade.

The Afghan Muslim population did not fear the small Jewish community; in fact, many viewed it as a welcome group. In a 2009 interview with CNN, Muslim women in Kabul recalled serving their Jewish friends on separate dishes, ones kept aside to honor the Jews’ practice of keeping strictly kosher.

Where did this respect and warmth toward the Jews come from?

The close cooperation demanded by trade, in part, fostered the need to work well together.

Yet Afghan Muslims historically have reported another, deeper reason for their esteem of the Jews. The Pashtuns, who are Sunni Muslims and the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, have long claimed that they, together with Afghan Jews, descended from the Ten Lost Tribes. In the 19th century, European Jewish explorer Ephraim Neumark reported in his travelogue “Masah Bi-eretz Hakedem” that the Pashtuns believed they were the Tribe of Benjamin. Afghanistan’s Muslims, Neumark said, even called themselves the “Bani Israil,” and followed practices similar to Jewish ones: the Pashtuns separated meat from milk, the men grew sidelocks and Pashtun women supposedly followed the laws of ritual purity.

The Pashtuns, said Neumark, expressed pride over their Jewish roots and preferred their Jewish “brothers” to the Shiites in neighboring Iran, whom Afghan Sunnis loathed. The Pashtuns’ perpetuation of the legend, then, meant that the majority of Afghanistan’s inhabitants ostensibly believed they descended from the Jewish people.

If I asked Afghan Pashtuns today about their origins, I could not predict what they might say. The state of international politics and the American presence in Afghanistan could easily foster resentment against Jews.

But the idea that Afghanistan’s peoples might descend from the lost Israelites still exercises a great pull on the imagination. In 2010, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli government had provided a year-long grant to scientists to determine whether genetic links existed between Pashtuns and Jews. No evidence of any DNA connection was reported. 

For the Jews in isolated Afghanistan, the story of the Ten Lost Tribes — whether true or not — provided a firm attachment to the Holy Land and other Jewish communities praying for a return to Zion. The Pashtuns, for their part, had similarly felt a bond to the ancient Land of Israel. As Afghanistan’s Jewish community has steadily decreased, the story of shared communal legends and even mutual respect between Afghan Muslims and Jews has also been lost.

Other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia that, like Afghanistan, once boasted significant Jewish communities now have tiny Jewish populations. Sherman, the photographer, also traveled to Damascus, the island of Djerba (near Tunisia) and to parts of Uzbekistan as part of an international project, “Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora.” The number of Jews living in these locations was higher than one, but sometimes not many more.

These vanishing Jewish communities, a phenomenon happening even as I’m writing this article, is taking place particularly in Islamic and Hindu countries. The remembrance of Jewish life around the globe has become, in my mind, more imperative as Jewish populations continue to dwindle.

This hits me more, now, with a deep sense of poignancy — whether I’m looking at new photos of Afghanistan’s geniza or taking bites of hot rice made from an ancient recipe, honed over years near the mountains of storied Herat.

Sara Y. Aharon, author of  “From Kabul to Queens: The Jews of Afghanistan and Their Move to the United States” (Decalogue Books and the  American Sephardi  Federation), is a doctoral student at New York  University in history and Judaic studies.