KABUL, Afghanistan – To the glow of candles and the soft cadence of Hebrew blessings, the Jews of Kabul celebrated the first night of Hanukkah in a city finally free of harsh Taliban rule. But there were only two of them — and each was alone.
At separate ends of a dilapidated synagogue that was once the heart of a vibrant Jewish community, its two sole remaining members, estranged by a long feud, were together only long enough to argue briefly about whether Sunday indeed marked the first night of the holiday.
One grudgingly accepted the other's word. Then they parted, to go about their solitary commemorations.
As the sky outside began to darken, Ishak Levin's old hands trembled as he lighted first one crooked candle, then a second. The synagogue's main hall was dim and cold; his menorah was the plank of a dusty old table.
"Praised be the Lord, king of the world, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah candle," Levin, a Persian Jew in his 70s, chanted in slurred Hebrew.
In a small, bare room across a cracked concrete courtyard, the two candles of Zebulon Simentov, a 42-year-old Jew from Turkmenistan, glowed on the sill of a window patched with plastic sheeting.
"I prayed for the end of the Taliban, so this is a joyous time," he said. He bowed his head, covered with a skullcap, to recite his own blessings.
Despite their common happiness over the collapse of the Islamic militia under which both said they suffered, the two could not set aside their enmity on this night.
"He is a bad person — I am afraid of him," Levin whispered, locking the door of the tiny, carpet-lined ground-floor room where he lives.
"That man is my enemy," Simentov said sternly as soon as he had finished his prayers.
Hanukkah, commemorating the victory of an outnumbered band of Jewish fighters and the rededication of the despoiled Jewish Temple, is traditionally one of the festive highlights of the Jewish year. It lasts eight days, recalling the legend that a single flask of ritually pure oil burned in the Temple's candelabrum for that span.
Both men said they would light candles every night of Hanukkah — but not together.
"For a thousand and thousand years, our forefathers have celebrated these nights, and now Jews all over the world are celebrating too," said Levin. "But with him — it is not possible."
Being deprived of the companionship of other Jews — and of one another — is for these two men the final blow in the erosion of a once-proud and flourishing community.
In the late 19th century, as many as 40,000 Jews lived in present-day Afghanistan, many having fled persecution in Persia, now Iran.
By mid-20th century, about 5,000 remained, but most emigrated after Israel's creation in 1948. The 1979 Soviet invasion drove out nearly all the rest, but Levin — the synagogue's shamash, or caretaker — stayed on.
He survived the Soviet years, and the civil warfare of the early 1990s that reduced much of Kabul to ruins. Since then, he has eked out a living prescribing charms and potions for Muslim women hoping to bear a son or prevent their husband from taking a second wife.
Simentov, a carpet merchant, returned to the capital about eight years ago after roving Central Asia for his business. By then, the community had already dwindled to the point that they were almost the only Jews left in Kabul.
The origins of their feud are murky, but both Levin and Simentov were jailed by the Taliban authorities after reporting each other for alleged offenses. They accused one another of wrongdoing ranging from running a brothel to misappropriating religious objects. Each denies the other's claims.
The escalating animosity may have cost the synagogue its most sacred treasure — its Torah scroll. Simentov accused Levin of wanting to sell it; Levin said Simentov asked the Taliban to take it for safekeeping.
The Taliban fled Kabul nearly a month ago, but the scroll has not been found.
Kabul's Jews have little else by which to remember the past. The city's Jewish cemetery was wrecked, like so much else, by rocketing during the civil war. Stones, weeds and debris cover the tombstones.
Both men have relatives in Israel, and groups in the past have raised funds for Levin to emigrate if he wishes.
But both say they intend to live out their lives here, steadfast in their refusal to seek one another's company.
"I hope that other Jews might come back, now that Afghanistan is free," said Simentov.
Levin, his room lighted only by a small lamp and his Hanukkah candles, doubted that would happen.
"I am alone with myself, and will be until I die," he said.