Half of Kabul's Jews Die; Other One Glad

The caretaker of Afghanistan's only functioning synagogue and one of the last remaining Jews in Kabul has died.

But the man now believed to be the sole survivor of this once-thriving Jewish community, who feuded bitterly for years with the deceased, said Tuesday he was not sad to see him go.

Ishaq Levin (search), about 80, died apparently of natural causes about a week ago in his quarters in the small synagogue in the Afghan capital, according to his 45-year-old Jewish neighbor Zebulon Simentov (search). The two lived for years in quarters at separate ends of the same synagogue.

"He was a very bad man who tried to get me killed," Simentov said, grinning as he warmed his feet on a diesel-burning stove in his run-down living room. "Now I am the Jew here, I am the boss."

The feud between Simentov and Levin began before the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 when the strict Islamic regime of the Taliban (search) was still in place.

Simentov blames Levin for the loss of the synagogue's most sacred treasure — a Torah confiscated by the Taliban sometime around 1999. Simentov says Levin wanted to sell the holy scroll, and provoked the Taliban into taking it by telling Muslim women their fortunes.

Both men said they had been jailed and beaten by the Taliban and each blamed the other for it.

Levin had made his living by telling Muslim women their fortunes and prescribing medicine and love potions for them, a practice that once landed him in a Taliban jail.

Simentov says he was jailed after Levin told the Taliban he was an Israeli spy.

Levin, speaking to reporters in 2002, denounced Simentov for claiming he had converted to Islam in a bid to take possession of the synagogue.

The heart of the argument appears to have been control of the synagogue, which includes the two men's quarters as well as a bare prayer room where the prized Torah was kept.

On Tuesday, Simentov produced what he said was a letter from Afghan Jews living in Israel ordering Levin several years ago to take care of the premises.

Police have said the scroll was in the hands of a former Taliban minister now believed to be in the American military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Simentov said Tuesday that he had asked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to help recover it.

Afghanistan's Jewish community numbered as many as 40,000 in the late 19th century, after Persian Jews fled forced conversion in neighboring Iran. But by the mid-20th century, only about 5,000 remained, and most emigrated after Israel's creation in 1948.

According to Simentov, the last eight or nine families left following the 1979 Soviet invasion. But Levin — the synagogue's shamash, or caretaker — stayed on, even through the repressive rule of the Taliban.

Simentov said he took up residence in the synagogue, built around a courtyard in the center of the city, after returning from Turkmenistan in 1992 to deal in carpets. But he quickly fell out with the older man.

Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal (search) said Tuesday Levin's body would be flown to Uzbekistan. Simentov said it would then be brought to Israel for burial. Israel and Afghanistan have no diplomatic relations.