Malta Diary Malta’s lengthy Jewish legacy
There is a Maltese language expression that states “Rabti u Zebbugi jaghmlu Lhudi” which means “if you cross a man from Rabat with a man from Zebbug you get a Jewish man”. It is far from being a malicious expression or in any way discriminatory. Rather, it is an expression of deep admiration and awe for any person who has clinched a good and profitable business deal. It is interesting to note that the towns of Rabat and Zebbug can be found in both Malta and Gozo and are amongst the oldest human habitation localities in both islands.
Something that I have discovered quite recently – and to my surprise – Malta has a lengthy connection to Jewish influence. Positively too, the inhabitants of Malta and Gozo have always welcomed persons of the Jewish faith and have never shown any anti-semiticism. In fact, since 3,500BC Maltese and Jewish families have always non-discriminately lived alongside each other with Malta possibly being the only place in Europe that did not herd Jewish families into ghettoes or Jewish Quarters.
Any historical discrimination was in fact inflicted by Malta’s colonial masters and not the actual inhabitants. Unfortunately, when Malta fell under Spanish rule for a while and under the Knights of St John, those of the Jewish faith were either expelled from the islands or chained into slavery to work on the galleys. Shamefully too, it was under one of the Knight Grandmasters that one of the entry/exit points to the capital city Valletta was designated as “The Jews’ Sally Porte” with Jewish people ordered to enter or leave the city only through that Porte.
This history serves once more to emphasise the cosmopolitan and homogenous blend of cultures, religions and traditions that formulated the genes of today’s inhabitants. Although basically of Semitic origins, with a Semitic-based language and a mainly Roman Catholic traditions, the islanders have incorporated and assimilated and welcomed the infusion of all the different blood streams that have coursed through its Central Mediterranean location.
Most people are comfortably tri-lingual in Maltese, English and Italian (almost from birth) and physical attributes that are mainly Mediterranean (including North Africa) but also a conglomeration of European features whether British, German, Nordic or Balkan. A quick browse through a telephone directory reveals a broad spectrum of family names that surely include almost every country in Europe as well as Semitic influences.
Current family names still very much in use like Abela, Amato, Attard, Azzopardi (a corruption of the term Sephardi i.e. of Jewish origin in Mediterranean and Latin countries), Bonavita, Castillo, Ciantar, Cohen, DeGiorgio, Enriquez, Ellul, Micallef and Mizzi all had Jewish origins but are carried by persons no longer of the Jewish faith.
Additionally, family names like Abeasis, Aroyo, Baker-Byrne, Coen, Eder, Tayar, Ohayon and many others proliferated from 1800 onwards when many Jewish families began to re-locate mostly from Gibraltar and North African countries and lived in Malta for several generations. In particular, the Tayar family has extensive connections to Malta and the Ohayon family is today still the most prolific.
A number originated from Jewish rabbis consigned to Malta to look after the welfare of Jewish residents but many others for commercial reasons, establishing thriving business enterprises in conjunction with Maltese and foreign entrepreneurs and living comfortably alongside their Maltese neighbours.
In the early 1950s the Eder family established five Haro outlets in different localities in Malta, the more popular being in Sliema and Valletta and dealing in female fashion wear. The chain remained popular but declined in recent years.
The late George Tayar was synonymous with commercial development in Malta as a well-known and respected entrepreneur as well as being President of the Jewish community in Malta, a generous philanthropist, and patron of the arts.
In the early 1950s he teamed up with leading Maltese entrepreneur Albert Mizzi (former Chairman of Air Malta and a great number of other companies in Malta and overseas) and Father Dionysius Mintoff (the Franciscan monk brother of former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff), Director and Founder of the Peace Laboratory in Malta, for a visit to Israel. They met with the legendary business magnate Baron Marcus Sieff for Mizzi and Tayar to acquire sole rights for Marks and Spencer in Malta over which Tayar presided as Chairman for many years until his death in 1994 aged 76.
This curious blend between people of the Jewish religion and the Maltese, including Roman Catholic Church dignitaries and authorities is best illustrated by an incident in recent years when Father Marius Zerafa. Director of Malta’s Arts Museum and a lifelong friend of George Tayar, was seated alongside a foreign man who made no effort to hide his anti-Jewish sentiments when he thought he would gain the cleric’s approval by saying “everything is the fault of the Jews – am I not right?”.
Father Zerafa smiled at the man pityingly and said “you are totally wrong you know”. He fiddled under his clerical collar and drew out a necklace to which was attached a large, silver Star of David.
The history of the Jewish community in Malta, albeit always a small community, stretches back to 1,000 BC when Jewish mariners from the seafaring tribes of Zebulon and Asher teamed up with the trade-faring Phoenicians and established a trading post in Malta. However, more of the development of that history in a follow-up article!