20 August 2021

Friday reflections on
the people of Afghanistan
and the last Jew of Kabul

Zabulon Simantov, Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew, was interviewed this week by the Indian television news network WION

Patrick Comerford

As Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban once again this week, I share the fears of many for the future of so many people in Afghanistan – women, young girls, the educated, liberal Muslims, and religious minorities, including the Shia minority among Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and the last remaining Jew in Kabul.

Afghanistan’s last known remaining Jew has refused attempts to evacuate him from Kabul in the last day or two following the Taliban takeover earlier this week. Zabulon Simantov (62) initially agreed to be evacuated, but then changed his mind, according to reports that spoke of an aborted rescue mission.

Legends claim that Balkh was the burial place of the prophet Ezekiel and the home of the prophet Jeremiah. There is a tradition among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan that they are descended from the exiled lost tribes of Israel. Interest in the topic was revived recently by a Jerusalem anthropologist, Professor Shalva Weil, who was quoted in the popular press to the effect that the ‘Taliban may be descended from Jews.’

Legends aside, a Jewish presence flourished in eastern Afghanistan from about the 7th century. Afghanistan was once home to an estimated 40,000 Jews, centred in Herat, an oasis city along the ancient Silk Road. That number dwindled to fewer than 5,000 by the middle of the 20th century, as the community faced persecution from successive regimes that, influenced partly by Nazi propaganda and beliefs that Jews were ‘Bolshevik agents,’ restricted where they could live and work.

The Jewish presence in Afghanistan virtually disappeared from the 1950s, with its emigration to Israel, India, Britain and the US. When the Taliban first came to power in 1996, the Jewish population had dwindled to single digit numbers.

In an interview with the Indian news network WION three days ago, Zabulon Simantov said that while he had the opportunity to flee to the US, he had decided to remain behind to look after Afghanistan’s last standing synagogue.

Earlier this year, he told Arab News he would leave Afghanistan after the High Holy Days, which begin on Rosh Hashanah next month (6 September).

His wife, a Jew from Tajikistan, and their two daughters have lived in Israel since 1998. But Simantov stayed on in Afghanistan to look after its last remaining synagogue in Kabul, through decades of violence and political turmoil.

Zabulon Simantov, a carpet and jewellery merchant, was born in Herat, once home to hundreds of Jews. He eventually moved to Kabul but fled to Tajikistan in 1992 before returning to Kabul. Since then, he has lived the synagogue – which he has renovated– in the heart of Kabul’s flower district.

Should he leave Kabul, the synagogue will close, bringing to an end Jewish life in Afghanistan after 1,500 to 2,000 years … or more.

He became the country’s last Jew when Yitzhak Levi died in 2005. The pair famously did not get along and in 1998 Levi wrote to the Taliban interior minister to accuse Simantov of theft of Jewish relics. Simantov retorted by telling the Taliban that Levi ran a secret brothel where he sold alcohol. The Taliban jailed both men, but eventually released them when they continued to fight in prison.

Their story inspired Michael J Flexer’s play My Brother’s Keeper, staged by the Apikoros Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006. The play tells the tale of the last two remaining Jews in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. They harbour a bitter hatred for one another, born out of their enforced co-habitation in a small, dilapidated synagogue, and spend the duration of the play feuding in fiery fashion.

Michael J Flexer told interviewers at the time that he had ‘tried to infuse the play with that feisty yet phlegmatic Jewish gallows humour,’ and that he wanted the play to get across the idiocy of religious intolerance: ‘The comedy comes from the fact that, in this case, there was only one religion involved!’

However, in the past week, comedy has given way to disturbing reality, and fears grow for everyone with the return of Taliban rule.

In the Hebrew calendar, this is the Jewish month of Elul (אֱלוּל‎), which comes before the month of Tishrei, when Jewish communities celebrate the High Holy Days, including Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Monday evening 7 September 2021, and Yom Kippur (Wednesday 15 September 2021).

As Elul is the last month in the Jewish yearly cycle, it is seen as a month of reflection on the previous year and as time to look forward to the coming new year.

As part of the preparation in Elul for the High Holy Days, it is also customary to recite Psalm 27 every day from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah (21 Tishrei, 27 September 2021).

In my reflections this Friday evening, I am reading Psalm 27, the psalm said by many during the month of Elul, and an appropriate Psalm to read as we contemplate the fears of many people in Afghanistan this week:

Psalm 27:

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

2 When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.

3 Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.

4 One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.

5 For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.

6 Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
8 ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
10 If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.

13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

Shabbat Shalom

A Shofar in the Beth-El Synagogue near Bunclody, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
83, Saint Mary’s Church, Loughrea

The Carmelite buildings on Abbey Street are enhanced by the lawns and gardens to the front, and the older church and graveyard to the south (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme this week is churches in the Carmelite tradition, and my photographs this morning (20 August 2021) are from Saint Mary’s Carmelite Church and Abbey on Abbey Street, Loughrea, Co Galway.

Inside the abbey church, rebuilt in 1897 by William Byrne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Carmelites began working on new buildings beside the mediaeval monastic site in Loughrea in 1785. A new church was completed in 1820 under the supervision of Father Gannon, the superior at the time, who also supervised the construction of the monastery and the convent.

The Carmelite nuns continued to live in Barrack Street, Loughrea, until Mount Carmel Monastery was built in 1831. As they were engaged in teaching, the nuns did not become an enclosed order until 1859.

The new abbey church was almost completely rebuilt in the Romanesque style in 1897, to designs by William Henry Byrne, who also designed Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, at the same time.

The intricate foliate detailing on this church in the Italian Romanesque style illustrates the artistic skills of stone carvers of the late 19th century. This delicate carving can be seen throughout the church, from the ornate façade to the tracery windows, making it a natural focal point for the monastic complex as well as one of the finest buildings in Loughrea.

The marble altar is by Edmund Sharp. The stained glass windows by Phyllis Burke include Edith Sten (ca 1995-1996) and the Good Shepherd (2002)

The gable-front presents a highly decorative appearance, emphasised by its elaborate arcaded entrance, and the decorative tower knits it to the other monastic buildings. The buildings are enhanced by the lawns and gardens to the front, and the older church and graveyard to the south.

Around the same time, a national school was built close to the entrance gate.

Successive alterations and additions have taken place since then, with the addition of a new residence in 1991.

Today, the Teresian Carmelite nuns who live in the monastery are dedicated to a life of prayer.

The existence of the ‘new’ abbey beside the mediaeval ruin bears testimony to an almost continued presence of Carmelites in Loughrea since the 1300s.

Inside the abbey church, facing the liturgical west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Matthew 22: 34-40 (NRSVA):

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37 He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

The ecstasy of Saint Teresa … surrounded by Carmelite saints (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 August 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for St Paul’s Church in the Diocese of Ho, in Ghana.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint John of the Cross depicted in a window in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)