As a women photographer, exploring the paths of the ancient Silk Road, I was far from home, feeling like a stranger. In May 2005, many foreigners were in Kabul, mostly NGO types, none of us were on vacation. With the lull in fighting, the occupied forces were nearly invisible, yet the tension on the street was high. I was about to start an education program in Waras District for boys and girls as Executive Director of the nonprofit I had co-founded. On this particular Friday afternoon, I sought out a way, as a Jew to pray in Afghanistan.
Just before sunset, Zablon Simintov, Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew welcomed me to the Synagogue on Flower Street. A concrete low-lying building, unidentifiable except for its turquoise blue door. The once 40,000 plus Jews who had lived in Afghanistan in the late 60’s frequented this place of worship. Now it is under the watchful eye, of its solitary care-taker; Simintov.
Inside the Synagogue, I noticed the Jewish iconography -the Mogen David motif of the brickwork and iron rails -a tin wall placard in Hebrew read: “Light in memory of SHLOMO SON OF NISSAN, 9th of Tevet 1968”
There were remnants of a Bima and the tattered wood doors of the Ark. Simintov, in his Pashtun style Salwar Kameez stood alone in the barren Sanctuary. We left down a dark hallway away from the Sanctuary to a small anteroom that served as Zablon Simintov’s parlor and bedroom. A tiny mattress stuffed up against one wall, a simple table and 2 chairs against another. I caught a fast glimpse of his hand dipping a shiny razor into the dark watery opening of a Royal Dalton china teapot, it’s flower pattern and gold rim looked gaudy against the sweat stained walls. Suddenly, Simintov picked up his towel and the foamy teapot shouting; “I’ll be back in a moment.” as he disappeared. He returned minutes later with the same Royal Dalton teapot and four china cups dangling from his stubby fingers. Temperature aside, it was difficult to swallow the hot tea for fear that one of Simintov whiskers would get stuck in my teeth. My driver and guide both waved their hands and refused to take any tea which was unusual as Afghanis drink ten cups of tea before noon.
Lighting the Shabbat Candles Anshei Shalom Synagogue Kabul, Afghanistan © Marla Mossman 2017
My politeness prevailed and an hour later I was standing before four candles nesting on the grimy windowsill. Simintov and I, shoulder to shoulder breathed in the sweltering Kabul heat. I did not speak Farci and he did not speak English but together we chanted in unison the Hebrew prayer for Lighting the Shabbat Lights:
“Baruch atah Adonai …….”
Built in 1965, Kabul’s Anshei Shalom Synagogue is now a reminder of what a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city Kabul used to be. Later in the 1980’s the synagogue was desecrated when the Torah was stolen by the Taliban and never returned.
According to numerous publications during its apex in the 7th Century, the wayfaring travelers on the Silk Road wanted to be buried in accordance with their religion. The holy men and families from distant homelands helped usher the dead into the afterworld. The ruins of Synagogues stretching from the Levant on the Mediterranean to Kaifeng in China were an offshoot of this phenomenon. The Hebrew language, prayers and traditions all connected the merchants of the ancient Silk Road in an eddying exchange of cultures.
I thought of this in retrospect as we drove the straight road that led to the former Khawaja Rawash Airport now known as Hamid Karzai International Airport. I felt a sense of relief that at 4:30 in the morning there was less chance that a roadside IED would detonate. I was more than happy to leave Afghanistan
Back in Manhattan, my mind raced with ideas, and stories. I wanted to find a link between the Silk Road and the immigrant communities living in the Five Boroughs of New York -to document how they maintained their culture while adapting to the American ways of life. Simintov and the Kabul Synagogue came to mind. I remembered he told me it was funded by contributions from former members living in America.
After months of research and phone calls I was sitting across the desk of one of Manhattans premiere colored gem stone dealers and Kabul’s Anshei Shalom Synagogue’s primary donor; Jack Abraham.
Eager to learn more facts about the Afghan Jewish community, I blurted out; “Tell me about your magnificent journey as a Jew, from Afghanistan to Israel and finally New York?”
He leaned back, laughed and began to unwind the labyrinthine history of his connection to the synagogue in Kabul, his people their relocation to New York in the late 1950’s to become the largest Afghan Jewish community outside of Isreal. He explained the nature of trade on the Silk Road, how money transfers were based on an honorary system (known as “Hawala,” or interest-free banking in Arabic).
In its prime, the Silk Road was a bustling network of camel, horse and donkey trails between Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and China all engaged in trade. A paper or financial promise in Kabul, Afghanistan could be made good, in Kaifeng, China. Based on a family’s honor, a piece of paper instructed the loan, from one powerful merchant family to another. Thus, the first international trade agreements and peace treaties.
With the modern times, there was a mass exodus of Jews from Central Asia specially Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to Israel. With little property, the Jews took gemstones and diamonds with them. Eventually in the 1950’s many of them immigrated to Queens, New York to become the experts and dealers in rubies, emeralds and sapphires. Their shops were reestablished on Manhattan’s 47th Street and grew into New York’s famous Diamond District.
Yossi Abramov & Jack Abraham on 47th Street New York’s Diamond District © Marla Mossman 2017
As our conversation continued, I introduced Jack to my Peace Caravan Project – a nonprofit art project which documents the origins of the great religions along the Silk Road. He was intrigued and invited me to see the sister Anshei Shalom Synagogue in Queens.
The Bride Anshei Shalom Shalom Synagogue, Kent Street Queens, NY © Marla Mossman 2017
Simchas Torah is an important Jewish holiday marking the end of the annual public reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle. Jack’s orthodox community often reads from Sundown to Sun up. I went to see the Synagogue for myself and to celebrate with Jack.
Scarves and Prayer Books Anshei Shalom Shalom Synagogue © Marla Mossman 2017
I was surprised to see in the center of the Sanctuary the Bima, shrouded in beautifully patterned, silken scarves that reached the ceiling. The dressed Bima represents the “Bride”, the Torah the “Groom” and at the end of the prayer service the scarfs are auctioned off as gifts to the wives, daughters and mothers. This is a unique custom carried over from these Mizrachi Jew’s Bukharin traditions.
Women’s Section Anshai Shalom Synagogue
© Marla Mossman 2017
Immediately, upon entering, I was escorted to the women’s section. I could hear the Rabbi reading from the Torah – his words common to all Jews around the world – even though the chants, the rhythms may change depending on the country’s musical traditions.
Purim Costumes Anshai Shalom Synagogue
© Marla Mossman 2017
It’s been my pleasure to return to the Anshan Shalom Synagogue to celebrate the unique rituals during the holidays with this Afghan Jewish community. To share with them their intimate connection of heart and soul that keeps their traditions alive. I am grateful they welcomed me in to photograph and hear their stories.
Through The Peace Caravan Project’s mission, I continue to document and bear witness to the world’s disappearing cultures.
I understand what it means to travel to distant lands, enveloped in diverse traditions and the need to preserve the customs that are familiar. It’s important to honor and respect those that are different from our own while we all share in our one humanity.
Photography & Text by ©Marla Mossman 2017