Kabul -- Passover 2006. He has been accused of betrayal, murder and spying for Israel's Mossad. His name is Zebulon Simintov, and he is the last Jew in Afghanistan.
For years he shared the distinction with Isaac Levin. The two men's relationship brings to life an old stereotype of the last remaining Jews in a small place who go to different synagogues. Although there was only one synagogue in Kabul, Simintov and Levin chose to live out their days at opposite ends of the decaying building, locked in a bitter feud.
The origin of their quarrel is said to date back to 1998, during the Taliban regime. Each man accused the other of wanting to sell the synagogue and its sacred lambskin Torah. Feelings of betrayal turned to hatred when the Taliban confiscated the holy scrolls. Both men were subsequently imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban for their religious convictions.
After the Taliban fell, Simintov and Levin each vowed independently to secure the Torah's return to Kabul, and their relentless feud finally ended in the only way possible when, in March 2005, Isaac Levin passed away.
With this history in mind, I enter the unassuming synagogue on Flower in Kabul to attend a Passover dinner hosted by Simintov. I'm surprised to see decorative Stars of David carved into the wall, a sight almost as strange as a UFO in the Islamic republic of Afghanistan. An Afghan boy who is Simintov's helper gives me a brief tour of the defunct synagogue. Able to accommodate a congregation of 30, it's now occupied only by thick layers of dust and tattered prayer books.
Down a narrow hall in a cramped room, greetings are exchanged between the last Jew of Afghanistan and four Western guests. We remove our shoes and take our seats on cushions arranged around a table on the floor. Simintov, who is middle-aged, is dressed in traditional Afghan garb. Unaccustomed to such a large crowd of strangers, he seems nervous, breathing heavily and compulsively combing what little hair he has.
Suddenly, Simintov starts reciting prayers from a pile of mouldy unbound pages scattered in front of him. Huddled together in a circle on the floor of this damp second-storey room in the Islamic republic of Afghanistan, we feel we are taking part in something forbidden.
Simintov's helper hands out Haggadahs (Passover prayer books) donated by the U.S. Army, along with boxes of matzos that a synagogue in Brooklyn has flown in. He then pours homemade wine from Soviet-era vodka bottles, a reminder of the Soviet occupation and Simintov's forbidden love for all beverages containing alcohol.
Simintov presides and sings songs from the Haggadah in perfect Hebrew while the rest of us are helplessly drawn in by the passion and fervour of his chanting. Occasionally, though, I can't help being brought back to reality by the television in the corner of the room playing Indian soap operas.
We flagellate each other with leek-like vegetables during the Dayenu song, breaking into laughs. Kabul city power cuts out halfway through dinner, forcing us to use our cellphones for light. When the room's two light bulbs come to life again, Simintov's assistant serves generous portions of delicious turkey kebab, chicken legs and boiled vegetables.
On the ride home, drunk from the ceremony and homemade wine, I think about the parallels between the story of Passover and the history of Jews in Afghanistan. Passover celebrates the Jews' escape from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. Jews have lived in Afghanistan for 800 years, and at one time the Jewish population was over 40,000. Nazi-spawned anti-Semitism, Soviet occupation and the eventual seizure of power by the Taliban forced them to flee their homeland.
Only Zebulon Simintov and Isaac Levin chose to stay, facing countless obstacles to preserve Afghanistan's Jewish heritage, enduring tremendous hardships to take care of the synagogue and protect the holy Torah. Both men suffered and struggled for the same cause in the same land, all the while insisting on going it alone.
The tragic tale of Judaism in Afghanistan is a testament to the importance of community and sticking together against the odds, something the Jewish people have learned the hard way. In spite of his stubborn solitude, Simintov continues to welcome visiting Jews into his home to share in his unrelenting and courageous celebration of his faith.