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Zeblyan (Sasha Olinick) and Ishaq (Bobby Smith) stand on either side of a hastily assembled coffin, dressed in simple wardrobes of kurtas and vests topped with ornately embroidered yarmulkes. They are the last two Jews in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and they hate each other. The dead Jew in the box was the one man who could mediate the tension between them, and now they must live together as caretakers of Kabul’s last remaining synagogue, even as gunfire and explosions can be heard outside. The premise, and the title of Seth Rozin‘s play Two Jews Walk Into a War…, are an intriguing setup for this gallows comedy. Director Adam Immerwahr, who recently stepped down as artistic director of Theater J in order to lead the Village Theatre in Washington state, returns to direct.
Though religiously observant, Zeblyan and Ishaq refuse to pray together. Rather, they engage in shouting matches about who experienced the worst tortures at the hands of the Taliban or whose family suffered the greatest degradations in Nazi concentration camps.
Ishaq, the more self-serious of the two, comes up with an absurd plan: To rebuild the Jewish community of Afghanistan, they must attract Jewish women to Kabul and start families with them, but first, they need a rabbi, and to get a rabbi, they need to replace the Torah that the Taliban have stolen. Eventually, he decides that since he knows the Torah by memory, but has unsteady hands: he will dictate and Zeblyan will transcribe the Hebrew onto parchment.
Ishaq even specifies the placement of commas, semicolons, and periods (his exactitude is funnier to those who know that the Torah’s Biblical Hebrew is written without punctuation marks). Zeblyan periodically vexes Ishaq with questions about the passage in question: If the story of Onan is interpreted as a prohibition on men’s masturbation (though even this interpretation is disputed), does this mean that women’s masturbation is permitted since it is not mentioned? Elephants are not mentioned, so are they kosher or prohibited? If lesbianism is not explicitly mentioned, let alone condemned, is it therefore permitted?
To some this may seem like flippant humor inhabiting that absurd place where the vulgar meets the sacred, but these are questions students and scholars of Torah continue to debate as they have for thousands of years. And perhaps this is why, for all their talk about bodily functions, neither Zebylan nor Ishaq can imagine abandoning Judaism. In between episodes, the sanctuary fills up with discarded pieces of parchment that do not meet the standards of textual accuracy, while outside, NATO and the Northern Alliance depose the Taliban and Zebylan sees increased business at his rug store as foreign tourists arrive.
Immerwahr, Olinick, and Smith deliver Rozin’s comedy perfectly, whether in the bawdy discussions of Jewish law, the escalating insults, or the slapstick violence choreographed by Cliff Williams III. There’s a wonderful bit of what could be called the comedy of virtuosity, as Smith’s Ishaq mimes wrapping the tefillin, the leather straps and boxes containing scripture used in weekday morning prayers, because the Taliban stole those as well, as Zebylan looks on in disbelief, having substituted discarded bootstraps.
Set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson has given the sanctuary sea-green walls and earthen-tiled floors, and a damaged lattice of Stars of David that forms the balcony of the bimah, the raised stage from which services are led. Ivania Stack designed the men’s simple attire.
Zebylan and Ishaq had real-life counterparts in Zablon Simintov and Ishaq Levin, who hated each other so much that they sometimes reported each other to the Taliban. Two Jews Walk Into a War…, which premiered in 2009, is not even the first play based on their story: Josh Greenfield’s The Last Two Jews of Kabul opened at La MaMa in 2003, while Michael J. Flexer’s My Brother’s Keeper premiered at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe.
Rozin has taken liberties, ignoring the journalistic accounts, which are equally absurd: Rather than sons of Holocaust survivors who headed east after the war, Simintov and Levin were the remnants of a Jewish community that archeologists confirm to have thrived in Afghanistan at least as far back as seventh century CE and written accounts claim to be far more ancient. Levin, who died in 2005, was nearly 35 years older than his antagonist. Simintov is also likely better educated on the laws of kashrut than his fictional alter-ego: He had been trained as a shochet, a butcher trained to slaughter animals and prepare meat in a kosher manner to serve Kabul’s dwindling Jewish community (he also ran a kebab restaurant, according to a report from Reuters). As the security situation deteriorated, Simintov left Kabul in 2021, joining the approximately 10,000 Afghani Jews who now call Israel home. Why did he wait so long? Some say he had debts to neighbors he wanted to repay; others say because he was reluctant to grant a divorce to the wife who had immigrated to Israel decades before. It would later be discovered that he was not the last Jew in Afghanistan, and that honor belonged to his distant cousin, Tova Moradi, who soon afterward fled to Israel with her more than 20 grandchildren.
Considering how well-written and performed the comedy and religious arguments are, it is disappointing that Afghanistan’s ancient Jewish history is largely ignored. The Jews of central and southern Asia have their own music of worship and celebration, but it is klezmer, the popular music of eastern and central European Jews is played over the scene changes. Jewish history is filled with tragedy but not every tragedy needs to be tied to the Holocaust.
Two Jews Walk Into a War…, written by Seth Rozin and directed by Adam Immerwahr, runs through Feb. 5 at Theater J. theaterj.org. $54.99–$84.99.