The delicious scent of Jewish Afghan cuisine drifts out onto the sidewalk from the Tel Aviv restaurant where Ofer works. He invites me in for dinner and to reminisce about his time in Afghanistan and his decision to move to Israel.
Over a meal of palao (pilaf), a lightly spice-scented stew of rice with saffron lamb, Ofer begins his story. Born in Herat– once the largest Jewish community in modern Afghanistan, Ofer has lived in Israel since 1981. He moved a few scant years after the 1979 Soviet invasion of his country when he was 17.
Ofer describes his life in Afghanistan in a soft voice, slipping back into the lilting accents of a Dari-speaking resident of his hometown, located near the Iranian border. “When I was a child, there were still many Jewish families in Herat. Even though the Soviet invasion didn’t come for many years, the Soviet influence was everywhere. Communist doctrine was taught in my school, and the country’s whole culture seemed more Russian than Afghan. My father told me stories about a time before that influence, when the Jewish community still came together and expressed its own culture. In our home, we still honored our heritage.”
After the Soviet invasion, followed by the Mujahidin victory, civil war erupted everywhere, leaving a void for the eventual rise to power of the Taliban. By that time, Ofer had left the country with his parents and two younger sisters, heading for a new life in Israel.
Ofer says he has always found his joy in cooking, and he takes pride in his role as head chef at one of Tel Aviv’s finer restaurants. At home, he often cooks the dishes of his youth and thinks of a lost civilization—one his now-grown children never knew.
The Jews of Afghan
According to Afghan Jewish natives, Jews have lived in the Afghanistan area since the Babylonion Exile and the following Persian conquest, beginning in 586 B.C.E. While archaeological findings are inconclusive on this point, there is sufficient evidence to state that the Afghanistan territories have had a more or less continuous Jewish presence from the 8th century CE until the end of the 20th century. At the turn of the 20th century, approximately 4000 – 5000 Afghan Jews resided in the country.
But its geographic location, between numerous Muslim countries and Soviet countries, created tensions, and economic conditions were poor. The majority of the country’s Jewish citizens left the country between the time immigration to Israel was allowed after 1951, and the Soviet invasion in 1979, with the majority settling in Israel, the U.S., Uzbekistan, and India. Even before the Soviet invasion, only about 300 Jews remained in the country. By the time Ofer left after the invasion, the numbers had dwindled to a few dozen. Today there is only one remaining Afghan Jew known to be residing there – a caretaker for the old Kabul synagogue.
Afghan Jews in Israel
In Israel today, approximately 10,000 Jews of Afghan descent currently make their home. Many Afghan Jews still claim a spiritual connection to the country of their birth, as well as a cultural tradition passed down from their parents. It was a badge of honor for them to hold onto their traditions when surrounded by other cultures that weren’t hospitable to their way of life.
After 30 years in Israel, Ofer considers himself thoroughly acclimated. But he holds traditions dear. Each week Ofer makes a huge pot of a special palao recipe, similar to what he served me. It is the Hamin of the Jewish Afghan community, eaten on Shabbat afternoons after slow-cooking for half the day. Ofer throws open his doors to his neighbors, who join him for a taste of the old country. Like the countries in which he has spent his life, the recipe is a mélange of warm flavors, piquant with the spices of many cultures – exotic, but somehow familiar.