Brotherly Enmity: No Love Lost Between Afghanistan's 'Last Two Jews'

By Paul Holmes (Copyright 2001 Reuters)

K A B U L, Afghanistan, Dec. 2 - Yitzhak Levy and Zebolan Simanto say they are the last two Jews in Afghanistan and they hate each other with a vengeance.
 
 "Yitzhak and the Taliban, they're the same," said Simanto, 41, pressing the tips of two fingers together to make the point.Across the courtyard of a crumbling apartment building on Flower Street that used to be home to a community of some 30 Jewish families, Levy is just as bitter about his neighbor. The building has no glass in its windows, no running water and two synagogues, one that Simanto climbs into through a window frame and another that Levy keeps under lock and key.

"All my problems are because of Zebolan," said Levy, a squat man with a flowing white beard and battered sheepskin Astrakhan hat, who gave his age as 60. He recites a litany of woes capped by accusations that the only other Jew in Kabul had denounced him to the  Taliban as a spy for Israel and landed him in jail five times." They threw me on the  floor and one sat on my neck and two on my  feet. The other two beat me with electrical cables. Now I can't walk properly," he said of one spell in jail.

The Last Ones

Levy and Simanto, it seems, are all that is left of a Jewish presence in Afghanistan that stretches back 800 years. All the other Jews left when communist-backed rule collapsed in 1992, many of them for Israel  where  Levy and Simanto both say their wives and children now live. Levy, a traditional healer born in the western city of Herat, remained in Kabul when the Taliban took over in 1996 and imposed their radical Islamic creed and intolerance of other religions on the city. Simanto, a dealer in carpets and handicrafts who is also from Herat, spent six years travelling in Israel, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. He returned to Kabul in 1998 and moved in." I came here for three months and it's been 3-1/2 years. I was in prison four times and all because of this man," said Simanto, who insists it was Levy who denounced him as a spy.

Separate Prayers

The two men pray separately in their fading, threadbare prayer shawls in their simple rooms at opposite ends of the courtyard. The synagogues are unused, their floors coated with a thick layer of dust and their walls cracked and peeling.

Simanto's synagogue has a bird's nest in the ceiling light. Levy's has Hebrew inscriptions on the walls, testimony to the fact that it once was a place of worship .The arks in both which had held the community's Torah scrolls are empty but for a few yellowing prayer books. That, it appears, is the root of the hatred that grips the two men.  The last Torah scroll was taken away by the Taliban and deposited at the interior ministry two years ago. Both men lay claim to the scroll, which they described as written by hand on deer skin and wrapped in silk, 500 years old and worth $2 million.

Affection and Amusement

Muslim neighbors regard the pair with a mixture of affection and amusement.  At night, they say they can hear them shout, hurling abuse and charges of treachery and immorality at each other like some unhappy couple imprisoned in a marriage gone sour. Sometimes, fists fly." Sure I've beaten him once or twice. He nearly got me killed with what he told the Taliban," said Simanto, a bespectacled man in a blue skull cap who speaks in an unstoppable flow of invective about his neighbor.

Now that the Taliban have left Kabul, forced on to the retreat by U.S. air strikes, Levy and Simanto have resumed their battle to retrieve the scroll and say they then want to leave.Simanto said he had a wife and two daughters in Holon, Israel, whom he had not seen or spoken to since 1998.

"If I get to Israel, I will slaughter some cows and give them to the people to thank God for saving me from this man," he said.

Levy's wife and five children moved to Beersheba in Israel 15 years ago and he has not spoken to them for eight months. His wife, he said, wanted a divorce.

"Yes it was a mistake," Levy said, breaking down in tears when asked whether he should have left Afghanistan with them."Every night and every day here is like a year for me. It's so difficult to be alone."
   


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