In Kabul's only synagogue, Afghan merchants open up shop

Wed Jun 1, 2011 1:18pm EDT
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By Amie Ferris-Rotman

KABUL (Reuters) - A lattice of corrugated iron Star of Davids marks Afghanistan's only working synagogue, a white-washed, two-storey building tucked into a sidestreet in the center of Kabul.

Kebabs, carpets and flowers are served and sold on the ground floor of the synagogue, which has been transformed into businesses over the last 18 months by the country's sole remaining Jew, who lives upstairs in a small pink room.

Cafe manager Sayed Ahmad is unfazed by his small cafe's history, where Kabul's hundreds-strong Jewish community once gathered for prayers. Most fled to Israel and the United States amid the Soviet invasion of 1979.

"Some of my customers know this is the synagogue and know about the Jew upstairs, but they don't care and neither do I," Ahmad told Reuters in his cafe, where bearded men on purple cushions puff on water pipes and eat traditional Afghan food.

The firebrand anti-Semitism found in some other Muslim countries, often fueled by anti-Israeli sentiment, seems noticeably absent among ordinary Afghans.

"I pray my way and he prays his way. I see him as a friend, someone to spend time with," Ahmad said of his landlord, sitting beside large black and silver wall-hangings depicting Mecca.

Zebulon Simentov, who chose to stay behind when his wife and children emigrated to Israel, has been known to conduct services in the upstairs of the synagogue for visiting Jews even though he is not a rabbi.

He achieved fame beyond Afghanistan's borders because of a raging feud with the country's second-last Jew that only ended when his rival died in 2005, and which inspired a U.S. play.   Continued...

<p>An Afghan woman clad in burqa and her daughter walks past a restaurant built inside part of the only synagogue building in Kabul, June 1, 2011. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani</p>