Muslim trust restores Jewish sites in Afghanistan
“Behind a parade of old mud brick shops, through narrow winding alleys, a tiny door opens onto a sundrenched courtyard, where school children giggle and play alongside the ghosts of Afghanistan’s Jewish past.
The Yu Aw is one of four synagogues in the old quarter of Herat city in west Afghanistan, which after decades of abandonment and neglect, has been restored to provide desperately-needed space for an infant school.”
Afghanistan’s Jewish community, once said to have numbered 40,000 or more, now consists of just one person, Zebolan Simanto. He receives a care package from New York every spring with matzos, grape juice and oil to conduct the Seder, the meal on the first evening of Passover.
(Photo: Zebolan Simanto in Kabul, 26 Jan 2005/Ahmad Masood)
There’s a legend in Afghanistan that the Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group, actually descended from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In this legend, the capital’s name Kabul comes from “Cain and Abel” and many Pashtun tribe names had Jewish roots, as in Afridi (Ephraim), Yusufzai (Joseph) and Shinwari (Shimon). After the Taliban were overthrown in November 2001, this legend was mentioned so often on Jewish-interest websites that I looked into it during a reporting tour in Kabul in early 2002. After much asking around, I finally tracked down Abdul Shukoor Rishad, the doyen of Afghan historians, at his home in the dusty suburb of Khairkhana.
Rishad, who was 80 at the time, burst into a very un-Afghan fit of exasperation when I explained through an interpreter that I wanted to know about the legend of Jewish origins. Foreigners had been asking him this for decades, he complained, and he always told them there was nothing to the story. He said some of the Jews sent into captivity in Babylon were settled in present-day Iran. But he rejected claims that some then moved from there into parts of present-day Afghanistan.
Rishad was so convinced the legend had no basis in fact that he once turned down a large grant to research it further. “There is an association in California that is searching for the Lost Tribes,” he said. “When I was there in 1995, they were ready to provide me enough money for a new study. I turned it down because the theory is wrong. Afghans are not Jewish.”
Olaf Caroe, the British author of the authoritative history The Pathans (1958), called the legend “all great fun” but too riddled with inconsistencies to be true.