Preserving a legacy for future generations
The second synagogue, Slat Lkahal, is situated in the immediate vicinity. A five-year restoration period funded by private donations from Jews from all over the world and supported by UNESCO finally culminated in its re-opening at the end of 2017. Rubble and debris were cleared away, masonry renewed.
Haim Bitton, an elderly man with the same forename as the famous rabbi, is chairman of the Slat Lkahal organisation and one of three Jews living permanently in the city again. He grew up here, left Morocco as a young man and now, in retirement age, he has returned. Bitton is a reserved man who doesn't like talking about himself. He doesn't want to answer general questions about Jews in Morocco. But it is largely due to him that Slat Lkahal was able to be restored and made accessible to visitors again. A plaque expresses gratitude to the most important donors.
Bitton is unhappy with the condition of many historic documents that couldn't be properly stored. He shows some stained old student lists from the old Jewish school, where his father was principal. With the restoration, Haim Bitton wants to remind people of the peaceful coexistence of Jewish and Muslim communities and pass it on as a mission for future generations.
But for many Jews this has an aftertaste, because most of the visitors to the synagogues are tourists, not worshippers. Services only take place here when groups of Jewish pilgrims come. In contrast to Marrakesh or Casablanca, there isn't a thriving Jewish community here.
Visitors can nevertheless gain an impression of what that thriving community would have felt like. They can stroll through the Old Town and still find the Star of David on some door lintels. Traders in the souk enjoy showing the old silver jewellery of the Jewish Berbers who once introduced this handicraft. For example, a favourite motif in times gone by was the hand of Fatima, a protective symbol in popular Islam, combined with the Star of David. Hung up somewhere in the house, the Islamic and Jewish motifs joined forces to ward off evil spirits.
The Muslim-Jewish coexistence was not free of tensions, says American historian Daniel Schroeter, an expert on Jewish life in North Africa. But Jews made an important contribution to Arab culture, co-influencing urban life, literature and above all music. This tradition has for the most part been discontinued. Essaouira serves as a reminder of the richness that has been lost.
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the German by Nina Coon