The Jewish Traveler: Malta
Symbols of Jewish influence appear throughout this Mediterranean nation, from menoras etched in catacombs to Torah scrolls and ‘harosett’ in Last Supper tableaux.
Yachts gleam in the sunlight, bobbing in the azure bays that notch the coasts of Malta. This three-island nanocountry in the Mediterranean could fit 65 times in tiny Israel. Yet, because of its strategic location, Malta, like Israel, has left an oversize footprint on history. And, like Jerusalem, Malta is built entirely of stone. Prehistoric temples with 50-ton monoliths, 16th-century fortifications and even modern hotels on its three islands—Malta, Gozo and Comino—are all constructed of the soft, often yellowish, local limestone. The baroque palaces of the densely built capital, Valletta, with their green-painted enclosed balconies; the richly ornamented churches and cathedrals; and the cannon-topped walls and bastions are the work of the Knights of Malta, formerly known as the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem and of Rhodes.
Israelite seafarers may have arrived with Phoenician traders as early as the 9th century B.C.E. The first Jew known to have set foot on Malta in the Common Era was the apostle Paul of Tarsus, whose ship foundered there in 62 C.E.
Greek inscriptions and menora-decorated tombs indicate that Jews lived in Malta in the Roman era. In the medieval period, following two centuries of Arab rule (870 to 1090), there were about 250 Jews, engaging in commerce, farming and medicine.
Under a succession of French and then Spanish conquerors, Jews were forced to pay heavy taxes, build fortifications and finance military campaigns, but they enjoyed special protection of the crown. In 1492, however, they were expelled, along with the Jews of Spain and Sicily.
In 1530, the king of Spain gave Malta to the Knights of St. John, who had been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottomans. The 16th through the 18th centuries saw constant maritime warfare between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Turks, during which Jews (and Muslims) were kidnapped at sea by the knights, held as slaves and sold to speculators hoping to turn a profit on the ransom. For this, Malta came to symbolize evil in Jewish literature of the period.
Nevertheless, during the Ottomans’ Great Siege of 1565, Jews volunteered for the desperate attempt to relieve the doomed Fort St. Elmo. Only after the Ottomans were routed did the knights build Valletta and develop the islands, partly with the labor of Jewish slaves. Jewish societies for the redemption of slaves, in Venice and elsewhere, succeeded in ransoming some captives.
In 1798, Napoleon ousted the knights and freed the remaining Jews. A boom in trade accompanied the arrival of the British in 1800, and Jews started coming from Gibraltar, England, Italy, Portugal, Tripoli and Tunisia.
But in 1805, the Maltese organized a campaign against the growing number of foreigners, especially the Jews. The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a government official in Malta at the time, issued proclamations to protect them. By 1881, most of the Jews were British (that is, born in Malta, Gibraltar or England). Many were in commerce or finance; others were shopkeepers or tradesmen.
During World War II, Malta was the only country that required no visas for Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. Since the 1950’s, Malta and Israel have had friendly relations and Israeli experts have helped develop local agriculture.
Malta gained independence in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. It joined the European Union in 2004.
On the first and third Sabbath of each month and on festivals, community president Avraham Ohayon and his family walk to the synagogue in the Valletta suburb Ta’Xbiex (pronounced Tash-BEESH in Maltese, originally a dialect of Arabic). Malta’s Jews live mainly around the capital. They bring a ritual slaughterer from Jerusalem, import kosher wine from Israel and matza from England and, when a boy is born, use a mohel from Rome.
Ohayon moved to Malta from Portugal with his parents in 1934; most of the community’s 20 families (a speck in Malta’s population of 400,000) hail from elsewhere— Libya, England, Scotland and Austria. On Purim 2005, about a dozen adults and half a dozen children came to the synagogue for the reading of the Megilla and a party. Ohayon’s son, Reuben, is the acting rabbi and provides religious instruction for the children. Though most community members are Sefardic, they use an Ashkenazic prayer book.
Malta’s Jews import jewelry, textiles and clothing; some are in the professions. Most have family ties to Israel.
In 1999, when the building housing the synagogue in Valletta was demolished, the community opened a new one in Florida Mansions, an apartment building on Enrico Mazzi Street in Ta’Xbiex. The rectangular sanctuary has a central bima; a low curtain separates the women’s section at the back. The Ten Commandments are inscribed in gold on a marble plaque above the Ark.
The gold-embroidered blue velvet Ark cover was donated in 1946 in memory of two brothers, Alfonso and Menashe Reginiano (one of whom was killed by a bomb during World War II). Contact Avraham Ohayon (work, 356-21-237-309; home, 356-21-312-666) to visit the synagogue and the cemeteries.
In Valletta, St. John’s Co-Cathedral (so called because it is one of two cathedrals in Malta) is the first stop for visitors who crowd Republic Street, the main thoroughfare. The cathedral (356-21-225-639) has a richly ornamented interior in Maltese baroque style. A bronze sculpture of Moses holding the tablets of the law, created in 1567, stands to the right of the cathedral’s altar. The cathedral museum houses two masterpieces by Caravaggio: The Beheading of St. John (ca. 1608) and St. Jerome (1607), which depicts the translator of the Hebrew Bible into Latin as a half-naked hermit.
A little farther down Republic Street is the Government Palace, the seat of Malta’s parliament and the residence of the president. Formerly the Grand Master’s Palace, the building is worth visiting for its rare set of 17th-century Gobelin tapestries, each depicting the flora and fauna of a different country (356-21-221-623). A series of small panels portraying scenes from Genesis, including Noah’s Ark, are painted on a ship’s bridge attached to the rear wall of the Grand Master’s Hall.
Farther down Republic Street, near Fort St. Elmo, is the area where the 19th-century Jewish community lived in Valletta. But the only physical reminder that Jews lived here is Jews’ Sally Port, a gate in the fortifications at the foot of Old Bakery Street, so named probably for its proximity to the ghetto and the synagogue.
Returning up Republic Street, turn left at Nofs In-Nahar Street to reach Upper Barraca Gardens, where a bronze bust of Albert Einstein graces the arched stone walls. This pleasant site offers an excellent view of the three Maltese cities (Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua) across the waters of the Grand Harbor.
A little excursion boat called a dghasa (DIE-sah) can take you from Valletta’s wharf across the Grand Harbor to Vittoriosa. In the 17th century, some Jewish slaves held in Vittoriosa slave prison were allowed to leave during the day and carry out trade nearby, probably on a street that came to be known as Il Triq tal-Lhud (the Street of the Jews, pronounced Ill Tree tal-LOOD). Today that street, which runs into the square near the Church of St. Lawrence, is called Old Governor’s Palace Street. But in commemoration of the street’s former name, a tiny stepped alley just off it now bears the name Triq tal-Lhud.
Jewish cemeteries provide a rare glimpse of early Jewish life in Malta. The oldest surviving one, the Kalkara Slave Cemetery, is in Kalkara (adjacent to Vittoriosa) next to 4 Rinella Street, near the Church of St. Joseph. According to a Latin-inscribed plaque on the exterior wall, the cemetery “was established in 1784 by the Leghorn Fund for Ransoming Hebrew Slaves.”
In 1834, the community established a new cemetery, Ta Braxia, which was in use until 1880. It is just outside Valletta, on Independence Street, adjacent to the Ta Braxia International Cemetery. At least one-quarter of the graves are of infants and children.
In 1879, the community established a cemetery in Marsa (located at the southern tip of the Grand Harbor). Jewish ornaments resembling Torah finials top the gabled, arched stone gate.
Just east of Marsa is the town of Fgura, where a grove of palm and date trees was planted in the town square in the 1990’s by the local council and the Malta-Israel Cultural and Friendship Society. A marble plaque in Maltese on the wall around the grove announces that this is the Jewish Community Grove.
On a crag six miles west of Valletta stands the ancient walled town of Mdina (Em-DEE-na). In the medieval era when this was Malta’s capital, one-third of its population was Jewish. A sign marking the site of the so-called old Jewish silk market is at 3A Carmel Street, next to a red door.
A synagogue, destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, stood near Bastion Square, the site where Beaulieu House now stands, according to guide Alfred Micaleff Sommerville.
Deeds and other documents written by Jewish notaries in Maltese with Hebrew script, located today in the Mdina cathedral museum, are the earliest known Maltese-language texts, dating as far back as the 14th century (Archbishop Square, 356-21-454-697). In Rabat, a suburb of Mdina, Jewish symbols such as a menora ornament some of the catacombs off Parish Square. St. Paul’s Catacombs were in use up to the 4th century C.E. (356-21-454-562); St. Agatha’s catacombs date from the 12th through the 15th centuries C.E. (356-21-454-503).
A Hebrew-inscribed tombstone from Mdina, once exhibited in Rabat and now in a storeroom of the Maritime Museum on Vittoriosa’s wharf (356-21-660-052), is one of half a dozen Jewish grave markers, the only physical remnants (other than the Hebrew manuscripts) of Malta’s medieval Jewish community.
Israel has an artistic presence in Malta through the works of Amos Yaskil and the late Zoltan Perlmutter; they are exhibited in the Tempra Museum in Mgarr (Em-JAR), three miles northeast of Mdina. Located in the Council Halls opposite the church on Sir Harry Luke Street, the museum is open Monday to Friday (firstname.lastname@example.org; 356-9942-9769). Museum founder Dame Françoise Tempra is also the founder of the Malta International Art Biennale.
From Mgarr it is just eight miles north to Cirkewwa, and just a short trip from there by boat to the serene blue lagoon of Comino, a speck of an island that is nearly uninhabited. Here the 13th-century kabbalist and false messiah Abraham Abulafia (born in 1240 in Saragossa, Spain) sought refuge after the rabbis of Sicily chased him out. Abulafia founded the practical Kabbala, a form of white magic, and tried to persuade Pope Nicholas III that Judaism, Christianity and Islam could be united. How Abulafia survived on this arid rock, which is pied with wildflowers in spring but sere in summer, is but one of the mysteries that surround his life.
Both Malta and Gozo are dotted with Stonehenge-like circular prehistoric temples, built more than 5,000 years ago and thus the world’s oldest freestanding stone structures. The objects of worship were probably goddesses. The Ggantija temples on Gozo are the most spectacular (356-21-553-194). Another must-see is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola, a suburb of Valletta. This set of round burial chambers dug into the rock is almost a mirror image of the ancient temples (enter from Triq il-Cimiterju, hypoge email@example.com; 356-2180-5018/9; tickets must be reserved).
During Holy Week (the week preceding Easter), signs in every town and village direct passersby to “wirja,” tableaux of the Last Supper (which was also the Passover Seder). Each tableau has Jewish elements, such as a seven-branched menora, a Torah scroll, even a plate labeled “harosett.”
Abraham Alves Correa (ca. 1778-1846) claimed to be the first English teacher on the island. In 1832, he was Honorable Secretary of the British Jews Committee. He is buried in Ta Braxia Cemetery.
Josef Tajar (1809-1863) came from Tripoli in 1846 to be rabbi of the community. His descendants have lived in Malta ever since. His great-grandson, George Tayar (1918-1994), was a prominent businessman and philanthropist and headed the Jewish community. A street in San Gwann, a suburb of Valletta, is named after him.
Historian Godfrey Wettinger wrote The Jews of Malta in the Late Middle Ages (Midsea Books). The Jew of Malta (1633), a misanthropic play by Christopher Marlowe, is set during the Great Siege.
World War II, during which Malta withstood the merciless pounding of German bombers, is the backdrop for several novels. In The Jukebox Queen of Malta, by Nicholas Rinaldi (Simon & Schuster), an American soldier falls in love with a local woman he meets during an air raid. The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat (Pan) describes the wartime experiences of a parish priest.
Malta is popular with moviemakers, including Steven Spielberg, who was there earlier this year to shoot Munich, a film about Israel’s response to the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
Spring—when orange, purple and yellow wildflowers offer a bright contrast to the ubiquitous stone—and fall are good times to visit. In conjunction with major airlines, Air Malta brings visitors to the islands via most European capitals (see www.visitmalta.com andwww.heritagemalta.org for more tourist information).
Yellow antique buses provide a fun and inexpensive way to travel around. Ferries to Comino and Gozo leave from Cirkewwa.
The Maltese language includes many words from Italian and French and is written with Latin letters. But nearly everyone speaks English and signs are in English.
The Hilton Hotel in St. Julian’s provides a relaxing, luxurious environment just outside the capital.
Guide Alfred Micaleff Sommerville has a vast knowledge of the country that includes Jewish sites; he can also arrange a wedding or honeymoon in Malta (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Malta has no kosher restaurants, but fish is plentiful. The flat bread called ftira and the traditional Maltese loaf are kosher. Gozo is famous for a small, hard white cheese called gbejniet (j’bay-NEET), served in olive oil with crushed black peppercorns. In Xlendi, a fishing village in Gozo, It-Tmun serves the freshest fish and excellent local wines (3 Mt. Carmel Street, 356-2156-6276).
The fish, the wine and the sunshine, plus the mysteries of antiquity, will hold these islands in memory just as the sea embraces Malta.