end of an era

‘My life is not in threat anymore,’ Afghanistan’s last Jew says after leaving country

Zebulon Simentov is hopeful that he will settle in New York, after leaving Afghanistan last month

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Zebulon Simantov reads his old tatered hebrew prayer book as he celebrates the Jewish New Year feast of Rosh Hashanah September 18, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Zebulon Simentov, until recently the last Jewish resident of Afghanistan, has been living in migratory limbo since he fled the Taliban early last month, finding temporary refuge in an undisclosed neighboring country as he awaits further instruction from his handlers.

Despite some uncertainty about his future, Simentov — who escaped with nearly 30 of his neighbors, mostly women and children, on a perilous five-day bus route through several Taliban checkpoints — is in many ways more fortunate than the thousands of Afghans now desperately scrambling to evacuate following the recently completed U.S. troop withdrawal that left the country under Taliban rule for the first time since 2001.

Simentov, who was beaten and imprisoned by the Taliban when the extremist group last held power from 1996-2001, sounded relatively sanguine in a phone conversation on Friday evening, approximately three weeks after vacating the ramshackle synagogue in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul that he had called home for decades.

“I’m feeling happy. My life is not in threat anymore,” he told Jewish Insider, in a deeply guttural and expressive Persian dialect, through an interpreter who is assisting with his evacuation from the region. “I feel a little bit safer than when I was in Afghanistan.”

Speaking from a safe house, where he is now in hiding, Simentov said his “final plan” is to settle in New York, a city that has captured his imagination, he told JI, for the past 50 years. “I am really in love with New York,” he said. “I’m not sure whether it will take 10 days, 15 days or one month.”

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) confirmed to JI that his office is working on Simentov’s case and has brought it to the State Department’s attention.

For the moment, however, it seems more likely that Simentov will, at least at first, end up in Israel, according to Moti Kahana, the American-Israeli businessman who orchestrated the evacuation from his farm in northern New Jersey — one of a number of such missions  he has facilitated in Afghanistan since August, when the Taliban took Kabul. “I think the U.S. side of it takes longer than Zebulon would like,” said Kahana, who runs a logistics and security company called Global Development Corporation.

The process, he said, could drag on for months as the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency tasked with resettling Afghan refugees on American shores, works its way through an extensive backlog of evacuees.

“He’s eager to leave,” Kahana said of Simentov. “He would like to make it to New York tomorrow. But it’s not going to happen.”

Kahana — who helped arrange the covert rescue of Aleppo’s last remaining Jews from war-torn Syria seven years ago — said he had spoken with Simentov on Friday morning and advised him to go to Israel, where Simentov’s sister lives. He is currently preparing for Simentov’s departure to the Israeli embassy in Dubai, where officials are expecting him. 

After his arrival in the United Arab Emirates, likely within the next week or so, Kahana estimates that Simentov will be required to wait for just a few days while his papers are processed, and then make his way to Israel. There, he can apply for an Israeli passport after 90 days.

“I think if he made it to Israel he would probably stay in Israel,” said Kahana.

Simentov told Arab News last April that he planned to leave Afghanistan for Israel during the High Holy Days. But he refused to leave Kabul when Kahana first arranged for his rescue in late August at the behest of a Hasidic leader in Brooklyn who is dedicated to such humanitarian work. Instead, Simentov asked for money, citing unpaid debts. 

His hesitation cleared the way for a separate rescue effort in which Kahana and his associates successfully evacuated members of Afghanistan’s national women’s soccer team, among others.

Reached by phone on Aug. 17, not long after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Simentov told JI that he was safe and did not feel as if the Taliban posed a threat to his safety. He expressed reluctance to leave the country until he resolved some financial issues, and at several points asked to be paid in exchange for an interview.

Notwithstanding any lingering debts, Simentov had long refused to grant his wife a Jewish divorce document known as a get — which would likely have placed him in legal jeopardy if he arrived in Israel before doing so. 

But Simentov was finally persuaded that fleeing Afghanistan was in his best interest when Kahana invoked the threat of such terrorist groups as ISIS and al-Qaida. Simentov agreed to a divorce via Zoom last month. “There is no whiskey to celebrate that, unfortunately,” he told JI.

Simentov left Afghanistan in the early ’90s and settled in Turkmenistan with his wife and children. After they immigrated to Israel, he returned to Kabul in 1999. Simentov says he has not spoken to his children for 25 years and would like to rekindle the relationship. “I miss them so much,” he said.

Still, Simentov has his eye on the Big Apple in spite of Kahana’s suggestion that he focus on getting to Israel. “Israel is my first home,” Simentov told JI, describing his connection to the Jewish homeland. “Now I would like to go to New York to get an American passport so that I can travel everywhere in the world — and then I will go to Israel, for sure.”

“Everything is exciting in New York — the cars, the whiskey, the people,” he said. “Everything.”

Worldly pleasures aside, Simentov — a portly man of large appetites who claims he is 59, though conflicting press accounts put him, more realistically, closer to 70 — would be following something of a well-traveled route within the modestly sized diaspora of Afghan Jewry that largely found refuge abroad more than 50 years ago in New York and Israel.

By 1960, only 700 Jews remained in Afghanistan, according to Sara Koplik, the author of A Political and Economic History of the Jews of Afghanistan, down from a peak of around 5,000 in the previous century. While the history of Jews in Afghanistan dates back more than 1,000 years, their modern presence in the country can be traced to 1839, when the Persian Jewish community of Mashhad was forcibly converted to Islam under threat of execution in a pogrom known as Allahdad — or “God’s justice” — and began to flee. 

Afghanistan “was not an easy place to live by any means,” said Koplik, though some rulers were more hospitable than others as Afghanistan’s Jews carved out an existence unique to the multiethnic region. “This is a very interesting ethnicity and people who were international traders,” she told JI, “who used their language skills and their knowledge of cultures to survive.”

By 1971, though, the number of Jewish families in Afghanistan had dwindled to just 25 in Kabul as well as the northwestern city of Herat, where Simentov was born. By the Soviet invasion eight years later, most of the Jewish community was gone. The last rabbi left Afghanistan in 1988, and a minyan — the quorum of 10 Jewish adults required for prayer services — was last formed in 1990.

New York City is now home to an estimated 1,000 Afghan Jews — the largest population in the world outside of Israel — including Simentov’s uncle, who is in his 90s and lives in Queens. Congregation Anshei Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue in Jamaica Estates, is the only shul for Afghan Jews in the country. Over the years, the synagogue has made efforts to assist Simentov as he hung on through decades of hardship, sending him annual care packages during Passover and making repairs to the synagogue door so he would no longer be forced to climb in through the window.

Still, Simentov does not seem to have developed deep connections with the Afghan Jewish community in New York, despite familial ties to the city. “I would prefer to live there alone,” he told JI. “I am planning to get my fiancée there.”

Asked for more details on his relationship, which he does not appear to have spoken about in previous interviews, Simentov adopted something of a belligerent tone. “This is a personal issue,” he snapped. “Do you need to know everything?”

Later in the conversation, Simentov revealed that he was not actually engaged but had been intimately involved with a woman in Afghanistan, whom he likes to describe as his fiancée. “Of course she is in danger,” he said. “I will try to help her.”

Simentov, who says he worked as a carpet dealer in Kabul, among other jobs, projected confidence that his business acumen would serve him well in New York. Though he speaks only fractured English, he said he planned to learn the language if he makes it to the U.S. “One hundred percent,” he said in English, then reverted to Persian. “I know a little bit.”

He said he was “completely quarantined for one year” during the pandemic and is now “fully vaccinated.”

“It is time to live outside a synagogue,” Simentov told JI. “I would like to enjoy the rest of my life in a private house.”

It remains to be seen how warmly he will be welcomed by his own community in New York. “The Afghan community is very embarrassed by Zvulon,” said Osnat Gad, a Jew of Afghan descent who lives in the Hamptons, pronouncing Simentov’s first name with an accent. “What he has done with the synagogue in Afghanistan,” she added, “what he has done with staying there and making a sensation about being a Jew in Afghanistan, it’s very embarrassing.”

“I think it’s a spectacle,” said Gad, who, like many Afghan Jews in New York, works in the jewelry business. “We get the shudders every time there’s an article about him.”

During his time in Kabul, a steady stream of journalists paid visits to Simentov’s synagogue residence, documenting a number of revealing tidbits about his eccentric existence. Fond of whiskey, he watched TV on Shabbat, kept a pet partridge and slaughtered chickens in accordance with Jewish dietary law. 

“He’s a curiosity and he knows he’s a curiosity,” said Koplik.

Somewhat infamously, Simentov is reported to have bickered so excessively with a fellow Jew, Yitzhak Levi, who took up residence in the synagogue when Simentov was away, that they were both imprisoned by the Taliban. But they were released when the squabble became too much for the Taliban to bear. Levi, the uncle of Yossi Avni-Levy, the Israel writer and diplomat, died in 2005 — reducing Afghanistan’s Jewish population to just one: Simentov.

Such darkly comical details have imbued Simentov’s plight with a vaguely screwball quality, even if the tenor of some coverage obscures a gloomier story about a seemingly kooky man forced into exile from his native country. “It’s kind of tragic and sad,” said Koplik, who has closely followed Simentov through the years. “There’s real tragedy.”

Simentov said he had no run-ins with the Taliban before he left Afghanistan last month, but he looked back on their previous reign with a sense of despondence. “During the Taliban it was a bitter life,” he said, particularly for women. “I want to say to the Taliban that they should not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Simentov added. “They should permit women and children to go to school, and they should include women in the government.”

“We have lots of brave women in Afghanistan,” he said, turning his criticism to American foreign policy in the region. “Unfortunately the Americans sold them to the Taliban and now they are de facto in jail.” The Americans “left the people behind,” Simentov argued. “They built something in half and they did not complete it.” 

Simentov said he is in touch with his “Muslim brothers” in Afghanistan. “The Hazaras, the Tajiks, the Pashtuns,” he told JI. “Everyone. I love them. I love everybody in Afghanistan.”

While Simentov’s departure marks the end of a long history, the Afghan Jewish diaspora is engaged in ongoing efforts to preserve and maintain cultural sites from abroad. 

Gad, for instance, is now helping with the coordination of an upcoming exhibition at the American Sephardi Federation in New York that will cast light on Afghanistan’s little-known Jewish history. “Afghanistan: the Hidden World of Afghan Jews” will open in the spring of 2022. Gad has also worked to restore Jewish cemeteries in Afghanistan and has paid a guard to protect a Jewish burial site where, she says, Simentov’s grandfather happens to be buried.

Simentov, for his part, said he had no plans to return to Afghanistan, nor does he envision any Jews settling in the country again after so many years of turmoil.

“Never, never,” he told JI. “I don’t think that any Jews want to go there and to live there. I don’t think so. It’s probably over.”