Asa Heravi and Zev Simcha brushed past each other in the dimly lit stairwell, just after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. Their eyes were fixed on the ground. Lack of even a nod conveyed the rancor they felt. They were the only remaining residents of this grimy, once vibrant Jewish community on Flower Seller Street in Kabul.
Asa was wearing a suit jacket over his afghan and a black four-pointed rabbinical skull cap covered his sixty-three-year-old head. His flowing beard was all white. He went to his one room apartment and struggled to carry a bucket of soapy water down to the synagogue. He didn’t see Zev sitting on one of the wooden benches, lost in prayer. As Asa bent down to scrub the floor, his knees creaked. Sunlight, reflecting through a broken stained glass window, cast a blue shadow on his face, giving him an ominous appearance. The dirt was caked deep, forcing Asa to labor with a strength he hadn’t used in years. Sweat poured from his face despite the chill of the winter air.
“Why are you doing that, old man?” Zev asked. “No Jew will return to Kabul and to the synagogue until the Torah scrolls are returned.”
“You’re a fine one to talk. You took them in the first place.”
“That’s a lie. I was going to send them to Israel for safekeeping. Before I could arrange for shipping, they arrested me and confiscated the scrolls. You’re the only one who could have told them what I was doing. They said I was an Israeli spy.”
“You’re the liar. You took the scrolls. They’re sacred and shouldn’t have left the synagogue. You know where they are. Get them back.”
“You’re crazy, old man,” Zev said. “The Taliban tortured me. Do you think they told me where they put the scrolls? I’d love to get them back, but don’t know how.”
Asa uncoiled from the floor, lifted the bucket and threw the remnants of the muddy water at Zev. The younger man, more nimble, was able to dodge a direct hit, but couldn’t avoid being spattered. Zev wiped his afghan, lifted his fist toward Asa, then turned and stomped out of the synagogue.
“Good riddance,” Asa yelled after him. “Don’t come back until you find the scrolls.”
Zev Simcha, age forty-eight, sat in the suburban Tel Aviv home of his son Yossi. The jowls on his rotund face had begun to sag since he had moved in here six months ago. He stared at the blank white wall in his darkened room. The only light was sunlight filtering through slatted wooden shades. He painted the wall with his mind’s eye. When he turned his head across the wall, a sunburst of bright orange appeared, followed by streaks of royal blue for sky, and deep green hues on the bottom of the wall formed a lush carpet of grass. No matter how hard he tried, no further picture came.
He hadn’t picked up a brush since his first imprisonment, although he had run the art supply store his father had founded in Kabul before it was confiscated by the Taliban —the store where fine art was sold from behind the counter. This mind painting exercise had helped him keep his sanity through two long Afghani prison stays--one where he was accused by the Taliban of being an Israeli spy—the other, after the regime was overthrown, and he was arrested for being a Taliban sympathizer because he sought the return of the Torah scrolls taken from his synagogue in Kabul.
There was a knock on the door. “Papa, are you in there? Can I come in?”
Zev shook his head back and forth erasing the wall. He pushed his drooping spectacles back onto the bridge of his nose. “Come,” he said.
His daughter-in-law, Esther, entered through a haze of stale smoke. She flipped on the light. “Papa, it’s dark—come out. Your grandchildren want to spend time with you.
What do you do in here all day?”
“I paint. When the picture is perfect, I’ll commit it to canvas.”
Zev averted his eyes when he glimpsed Esther’s long, slender legs pouring out of her shorts and her bra strap peeking out from under her tank top. He had only seen such details on his late wife in the intimacy of their own bedroom. Otherwise, she remained covered as befitted a woman. Thinking about Mimi caused Zev consternation. He felt guilty not having visited her grave since he arrived in Israel. Maybe he should have stayed in Afghanistan. When the Taliban were overthrown, he and Asa had become the last two Jews of Kabul. They had spent months searching for the Torah scrolls before finding them. Zev then elected to join his family in Israel. Asa, set in his ways, stayed in Kabul to try and resurrect the Jewish community. Now, Zev wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe he should have remained to help Asa.
Asa Heravi walked through the crumbling concrete fence toward the bullet-riddled Jewish complex on Flower Seller Street in Kabul. He touched the mezuzah nailed to a worn string of Hebrew letters imprinted in the cement above the front door. He kissed his fingers before entering the building. Asa saw walls with pockmarks, broken windows replaced by corrugated cardboard, and rusted fans in which pigeons had made their homes. He stroked his flowing white beard and removed his yarmulke in order to scratch his hairless head.
It had been six months since he and Zev, the last two Jews of Kabul, had rescued the Torah scrolls that had been taken by the Taliban. Zev had left to join his family in Israel, but Asa remained to try to revitalize the Jewish community. He had scrubbed the synagogue, held some services, but because of the disrepair of the complex, particularly the living quarters, few Jewish families returned to Flower Seller Street. Asa had used all his money to secure the return of the Torah scrolls and was therefore in a quandary as to what resources he could employ to make the complex habitable and appealing so that Jewish settlers would return to their home from the Diaspora.