Selectionnez une rubrique, un article ou un numéro du GUIDO
Two years ago, in the March 2012 issue, I told you about the restoration of the Sat Laklhal synagogue: now the work is in progress, testifying of a real will to preserve the memory of the town.
The buildings erected by the various Consulates as well as its places of worship are part of Essaouira heritage; they bear witness to an era of cohabitation and to a dialogue of cultures. Mosks, synagogues and churches are a reminder of these times of exchanges, vouching for the quality of the meeting ground where Arabic, Jewish, Berber, African or European people happily mixed in the town. Nevertheless, it is very sad that this heritage is left in ruins and that numerous historical buildings are bound to disappear sooner or later. With the protection of the Jewish heritage in mind, Haïm Bitton undertook a major operation to revive the Sat Laklhal synagogue. It is situated at the extreme north end of the Mellah, beyond the arch at the end of the open ground when you come from Bab Doukkala and enter the Mellah from the right.
A native Souiri, Haïm Bitton currently lives in California. He started this project of rehabilitating and saving the only communal synagogue of the town out of forty or so synagogues of various sizes listed. The work on the synagogue started with Haïm Bitton’s own funds and he showed a great determination.
An association was created in order to find the necessary financing for the preservation work: Jewish people from Mogador who live all over the world have joined in already showing very strong links and a deep solidarity. More than 30 tons of rubble have been removed from the site as the ceiling was falling down, deteriorated by infiltrations and ruined by time and rain. Though in an advanced dilapidated state, the synagogue has now a proper roof that has been repainted. The prayer room is nearly entirely done. The altar piece was scrubbed, the walls were washed and the old motifs that one can find on Jewish marriage documents have been repainted identically. This place of worship owns an altar screen or arch (heikhal in Hebrew) made of sculpted wood that is not of local origin but of baroque Italian composition from Livorno; it is still in a relative good state but needs restoration and paint work. Today, it has been scrubbed, cleaned but the doors are still missing as they were stolen a long time ago. As for the Attia heikhal of a Victorian style, it came from Manchester due to numerous exchanges between England and Essaouira at the time.
The watchword is protecting what still remains. This synagogue was built by Asher Knafo’s great grandfather who was a learned Rabbi and who was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in the town; he was a member of “the last rites” brotherhood (washing, preparing and burying the dead).
The people gathered in a voluntary group called ‘Hevra” and were in charge of funeral services; they received a financial contribution from the Jewish people in the town that was given out of a long tradition of charity towards the deceased and the beadle used to collect it at funerals. This synagogue was the only one built with public funds; it is then that the brotherhood used this money to buy the site and then build this place which became the only communal place (with the Haïm Pinto synagogue nearby) situated in this northern area of the town, rich Jewish people being established in the southern part.
It used to be the headquarters of a social organization set in particular to help children in need within the community where they used to learn how to speak and read Hebrew among other things. Haïm Bitton himself was one of these pupils who learned Hebrew there and he is therefore much attached to this place of worship and very motivated by its restoration. Like many Moroccan Jewish people he left the town in 1964 with his family, a time which saw the last big wave of emigration towards Israel as the authorities then facilitated their departure; they were under pressure from Moroccan Jewish people following the shipwreck in Tangier where about forty Jewish people perished. The first emigrants had left Morocco between 1948 and 1958. A few families remained until 1972, the year when the last “minyen” or “quorum” took place in the Slat Laklhal; it comprised 10 people (the minimum required number of participants) and the door of the synagogue closed down definitely after that.
Within these walls one can feel an infinite sweetness and a peaceful meditative state. The vast prayer room in the synagogue has a nearly perfect square shape with sides of 8 metres wide and is very interesting to watch. At the end of it is the wooden heikhal inside which blue painted newspaper was found (they turned up being daily papers dating from 1956) and in the centre are two columns, that used to shelter the “teba” and that support the roof which is slightly off centre in order to be visible to everyone. The room used to have central lighting hanging from the beams and made of big pieces of glass from Bohemia (the old kingdom of Tchecoslovaquia renowned for its crystal work): the congregation used to pay to fill in the glasses with water, oil and wicks, a kind of “mariposa” before the arrival of electricity in the town. Very soon new pieces of glass will be set in; there will be around fifty of them made in China along with electric candles and plaques of yellow resin to replace the oil. Modern “Mariposa”! But the spirit will remain.
All around the room were wooden benches; other benches were placed back to back in the centre of the room around the “teba” where more than a hundred men could sit; about thirty women could fit in the balcony above and in an adjoining room. One can see today sealed windows on the walls that used to give unto neighbouring houses so people could see and hear prayers without having to move.
Taking into account the fact that no site of a good size existed in the town to build this communal synagogue, it was erected on a small site between two houses which is the reason for the only two supporting columns. Liturgical poems written in Hebrew by people from Mogador were read and chanted every Friday on the Shabbat on Andalusian Arabic airs without any musical accompaniment. The young Haïm Bitton used to come here with his father and he keeps fond and moving memories of this time. In the chaotic fifties, this place of worship was used as a meeting place as well: the creation of the state of Israel generated lots of heated discussions, free Talmud or Modern Hebrew classes were held too and in all memories the synagogue remains a lively place with lots of fruitful exchanges. The floor is being repaired, the ceiling is made of “tag” (wood branches) on which soil and wood shavings are put in order to harden and level the whole. Handmade concrete tiles painted with the same motifs and colours as of old will be placed on top like in the old days.
Apart from its cultual and cultural activities, the rehabilitation of this historical building will no doubt contribute to restore the multi confessional character of Essaouira and reassert the town as a place of peace and tolerance in Morocco. Once open to the public the synagogue will be a place of worship as well as a museum: it is a place to preserve in Essaouira and all good wills are welcome to join in the work.
If you are interested in visiting it, in contributing to its restoration or for any kind of contact, go there: the synagogue is at the entrance of the big square of the Mellah at the north western end of the town, just before the sabbah. Telephone numbers are posted on the door. The work is currently in progress and the door is often ajar.