Synagogue-dweller Is Afghan Jewry's Last Gasp

Zebulon Simentov lives, eats and prays alone _ the last known Jew in a country dominated by conservative Muslim culture.

In the late 19th century, Afghanistan's Jews numbered about 40,000, many of them Persian Jews who had fled forced conversion in neighboring Iran. Beginning with an exodus to Israel after it became a state in 1948, the community has been in decline.

Now Simentov is the caretaker and sole member of Afghanistan's only working synagogue. The last eight or nine Jewish families left after the 1979 Soviet invasion, he said.

Simentov's wife and children moved to Israel years ago, but he stayed even through the Taliban regime. He was born in the western Afghan city of Herat in 1959 and says Afghanistan is home. But having survived numerous beatings under the Taliban, he now only wears his yarmulke, or skullcap, in private.

Portly, fond of whiskey and aged about 50, Simentov lives alone in the dilapidated two-story synagogue building and gets by on donations from Jews abroad and sympathetic local Muslims.

Until 2005, Simentov shared the house with one other Jew, but the two feuded and lobbed allegations at each other of having let a sacred Torah scroll go missing and of having spread rumors that resulted in Taliban beatings. When his 80-year-old housemate died, Simentov said he was happy to be rid of him.

Though Simentov has a Muslim friend who visits a few times a week, he spends most of his days in the company of his pet partridge, reading a Hebrew prayer book and watching Afghan TV in a small room whose pink walls are adorned with an Afghan flag and the picture of an orthodox rabbi.