The last Jew in Kabul

The strange story of the last remaining Jewish men to live in Kabul

I was researching for a play I still haven't written about conspiracy theories, when I came across the story which forms the basis of My Brother's Keeper. A Reuters journalist had discovered the last two Jews of Afghanistan in late November 2001, hiding out in a dilapidated synagogue in Kabul.

They claimed to be all that remained in the country of a Jewish community dating back to the Babylonian exile, and had survived the terrors of the Russian invasion, the civil war and the Taliban regime. But, most interesting of all, they hated each other.

On the surface it looked like the ultimate in anti-Semitic hoaxes. A Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the globalised, online age: "Two Jews. In a state torn apart by war and pinned together by sharia law. And they hate each other. Oh, those Jews!"

It seemed a spiteful version of the joke about the Jewish desert island castaway who builds two synagogues. When quizzed about them by his rescuers, he points at one and says: "That one, I don't go to." So I dug a little deeper, and the impossible story turned out to be . . . well, kosher. Yitzhak Levy and Zebulon Simanto were the world's tiniest minority, practically imprisoned in the small building that served as their home, their synagogue, their separate but conjoined universe.

They were chalk and cheese, or rather milk and meat. Yitzhak was long and wiry, with an equally long and wiry beard; thoroughly Afghan and as old as the mountains. Zebulon was short, fat and clean-shaven; distinctly European in cardigans and spectacles and only in his early forties. And did they hate each other? Hate is too small a word. They held separate services. They kept bemused neighbours awake at night with slanging matches. They denounced each other to the Taliban as Mossad spies, each earning the other a beating from the largely apathetic authorities. When Yitzhak was found dead in the synagogue in January 2005, there was no posthumous reconciliation. At the time, Zebulon remarked that he was glad because his old rival and sole companion was a "very bad man".

By the time I interviewed him this summer, he had mellowed slightly. He sighed: "All the Jews of the world know that he was a madman." This from a man who expects to rebuild Afghan Jewry singlehandedly. And without even an Eve to play opposite his post-apocalyptic Adam.

There seemed something very universal in the tale of two drowning men expending their last reserves of energy on trying to strangle the other. No story better illustrates the maxim: united we stand, divided we fall. And now Zebulon is the last man standing. His life is an utter anomaly; his existence a daily act of defiance. Is he not lonely? Would he not rather be with his estranged wife and children in Israel? When I asked him how it felt to be the last Jew of Afghanistan, he replied with heroic egocentricity: "It doesn't matter. I'm very brave."

Michael J Flexer's My Brother's Keeper will be at the Pleasance theatre, London N7 (020 7609 1800) until 3 December