LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
What was once a thriving Jewish community in Afghanistan today is just one man. His name is Zabolon Simantov and he lives in a small room next to a crumbling synagogue. His family is in Israel, and Simantov says he often thinks about joining them. But he also feels strongly about staying in Afghanistan. He believes it's the only way to keep the country's Jewish history alive.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson talked to Simantov at his home in Kabul.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Zabolon Simantov says he's proud to be Jewish. He boasts of receiving matzo packages for Passover from Afghan Jews living in New York. He says sometimes foreigners who are Jewish come over to his house for the high holidays.
Mr. ZABOLON SIMANTOV (Businessman): (Through translator) I feel like the lion of Afghanistan. Nobody can touch me.
NELSON: But at the same time, this son and grandson of Orthodox rabbis takes great pains to hide his faith. Simantov doesn't put on his yarmulke until he finds out a reporter visiting him on this day is American.
Mr. SIMANTOV: (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: And it takes coaxing to persuade Simantov to take visitors inside the synagogue in the crumbling compound he calls home. His caution is born from years of oppression, first by the Mujahedeen - Islamist fighters who defeated the Soviets and who pushed him to convert - then by the Taliban government, which jailed him. He says that Taliban officials stole the carpets he sold for a living, as well as the synagogue's Torah. Even now, Simantov says, many here still pressure him to become a Muslim.
Mr. SIMANTOV: (Through translator) They are dumb. For me, that kind of talk is like a matchstick you use to light a cigarette. You throw it away without a second thought.
NELSON: Still, he admits the pressure wears on him. So does trying to scrape by on the little savings he has left. He repeatedly asked a reporter for money in exchange for telling his tale. He was visibly frustrated when told he wouldn't get any.
Simantov, who is 47, has a roof over his head and little else. A thin bedroll, some folding chairs, and a flimsy table are his only furnishings. He wears a threadbare Afghan tunic and baggy trousers over his short, stocky frame. So why does he stay in Afghanistan?
Mr. SIMANTOV: (Through translator) I don't want my Jewish heritage erased. My father was a rabbi. My grandfather was a rabbi. We were a big religious family.
NELSON: He complains that centuries of Jewish life in Afghanistan were wiped out by decades of war and hardcore Islamists. He says historic synagogues in his hometown of Herat were turned into mosques and schools. Some scholars estimate there were 4,000 Jews living in Afghanistan a half century ago. But Simantov says by the time he decided to get married 15 years ago there were so few Jewish girls left here that he went to neighboring Turkmenistan to find a bride.
For safety reasons, Simantov sent his bride to Israel. His wife and the couple's two daughters - Shoshana, 14, and Rachel, 12 - live near Tel Aviv. He hasn't seen them in three years. But he says he talks to them by phone every other week.
Here in Kabul, Simantov keeps mostly to himself. The business owners on Flower Street, where he lives, call him Zabolon the Jew. They say they don't know him other than to say hello. One exception is Karmatullah, a 45-year-old Muslim shopkeeper who stores some of his goods at Simantov's house. He regularly shares a cup of green tea and banter with his Jewish neighbor. He considers him a fellow Afghan - at least in part.
KARMATULLAH (Shopkeeper): (Through translator) We can't say they are part of our history. They immigrated here. But it's okay for Jews to be here as long as they don't aim to occupy our country.
NELSON: Simantov says it's unlikely any Afghan Jews will move back here. He's not even sure how long he will stay.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.