The Arty Semite

Q&A: Sara Y. Aharon on Jews of Afghanistan

By Shoshana Olidort

  • Print
  • Share Share

“From Kabul to Queens: The Jews of Afghanistan and Their Move to the United States” by Sara Y. Aharon tells the story of Afghanistan’s Jewish community and its resettlement in the United States. The American Sephardi Federation held a book launch party November 3 at the Center for Jewish History. Before the event, Aharon, whose father was born in Afghanistan, sat down with The Arty Semite to talk about her book and about the Jews of Afghanistan.

Shoshana Olidort: What inspired you to write this book?

Sara Aharon: My grandparents are from Herat, Afghanistan, and though I’ve had a long and fruitful Jewish education, the courses I took never mentioned the word “Afghanistan.” For my undergraduate thesis at Brandeis I decided to research the history of Jews in Afghanistan from their foundational myths until the 21st century. According to Afghan Jews, they are descendants of the 10 lost tribes. This myth has importance whether it’s true or not, because of how it made them feel. Afghan Jewry was extremely isolated from the Jewish world, and from the world at large. When you’re that isolated, this sort of myth makes you feel like part of greater klal yisrael [all of Israel].

What were relations like between Jews and Muslims in Afghanistan, and how did this change with time?

Muslim-Jewish relations were mostly tolerant and peaceful. There were 5,000 to 6,000 Jews in 20th-century Afghanistan, so there was no reason to feel threatened by the Jewish community. The tide began to turn after Afghanistan gained independence in 1919, with the surge of nationalism that brought on resentment toward non-Muslims. There were some anti-Jewish decrees. Jews were expelled from outlying trading villages and moved into cities, which forced many into extreme poverty. But by the ’50s and ’60s these restrictions had tapered off, and most Jews left Afghanistan after the founding of the State of Israel, with the majority emigrating en masse in the height of the ’60s.

Afghans, like Iranians, are ethnically Persian. How would you describe the differences between Persian-Jewish and Arab-Jewish relations in the region?

Jews’ relations with Persians have been largely more accepting and more tolerant than in Arab countries, which are much closer to Europe — closer to, let’s say, ideas coming from Europe in the ’30s and ’40s, and, more importantly, closer to Palestine. For Persians, the Palestinian problem is not their problem.

In your book, you mention that Jews in Afghanistan were strictly observant. How has this changed with their move to the United States?

Back in Afghanistan they didn’t have the tools to violate Shabbat, since electricity was only starting to come in when they were leaving. The idea of labels is European. For Afghan Jews, there is no such thing as denominations, and observance doesn’t affect identity. Even if you drive on Shabbat, that doesn’t mean you’re not religious.

How has the Afghan Jewish community adapted to the larger American Jewish community?

There are likely about 1,000 Jews of Afghan descent in the United States today, and I would say they have adapted to the American Jewish world and the American world much quicker than the larger “Sephardic” communities like the Iranian and Syrian communities, with their in enclaves in Great Neck; L.A.; and Deal, N.J. There is no Afghan enclave.

Are there any Jews living in Afghanistan today?

Only one. There used to be two, and one passed away fairly recently.

What are you hoping that readers will take away from this book?

A few things: the story of a Jewish community that has not been told from an academic perspective in English. I also hope that readers will take away a different model of Jewish-non-Jewish relations. And the fact that although it’s a small Jewish community, Afghan Jews still deserve to have their story told as a separate book and not as part of a larger book on Jews in the Muslim world, which lumps them together with Jewish communities they’ve had no connection with.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: From Kabul to Queens, Sara Y. Aharon, Shoshana Olidort, Interviews, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.