Malta Diary A lengthy Jewish legacy going back 3,500 years
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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.
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 at least 1,500BC 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 after the death of Christ.
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. There was also such a gateway at Vittoriosa.
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 of Malta and Gozo. Although basically of Semitic origins, with a Semitic-based language and 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 the late 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. former Director of the 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.
Noteworthy too that throughout World War II Malta allowed the entry of Jewish families fleeing from the Nazi holocaust to relocate in Malta without undue fuss and checking.
The history of the Jewish community in Malta, albeit always a small community, stretches back to 1,500 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.
A couple of years back, the then Minister for Education and Employment, Owen Bonnici, participated in the end of Jewish Summer School event where Jewish children are given the opportunity to have access to Jewish education.
Minister Bonnici explained that, “there are different educational programmes that are done throughout the year to supplement the Jewish children who learn in different local schools with their culture and the Hebrew language. Gan Israel Summer School became one of the highlights of these programmes, as the Jewish children aged 3 to 12 get to enjoy a full month of their culture, with their friends from the community. Despite the tight timetable and the challenges that the Covid-19 brought about, the School managed together to bring up an amazing summer experience to the local Jewish children”
Jewish roots in Malta in the 4th and 5th Centuries during the Roman period are evidenced by several Jewish Catacombs with drawings depicting the Jewish Menorah (candelabra) that can be found at the St Paul’s Catacomb site near Rabat. In Mdina, where the Jews made up almost one third of the population, there is a ‘Jewish Silk Market’ and a ‘Jews’ Gate’, and in Valletta and Vittoriosa there is a old ‘Jews Sally Port’
Even the island of Comino, almost uninhabited today, has Jewish roots. Comino is where the well-known Jewish Mystic Avraham Abulafia lived.
Hanukah (Chanukah) is the Jewish Festival of Light and was celebrated during the first three weeks of last December and began on the tenth of the month and was celebrated in Valletta with the attendance of Maltese dignitaries and Government Ministers.
There are two synagogues active in Malta and the Jewish Community currently has 300 members. The Community Office and one synagogue are currently located in an apartment in an ordinary residential building where the internal walls have been removed to create a large space for the synagogue.
Six years ago, the Chabad House of Malta was opened by Rabbi Haim Segal. On the front of the house there is an “L’Chaim” kosher restaurant. The gourmet food is excellent, tasty and inexpensive.
At the back of the restaurant there is a Shtibel with a Holy Ark. Usually, this hosts Minyans only on Kabalat Shabbat.
Political relations between Malta and Israel have generally always been excellent and although since the founding of the State of Israel and although there is also sympathy for the Palestinians there has never, ever been any approval for the dismantling of Israel and terrorist atrocities against it.
Shalom to all my Jewish friends around the world. I am proud to state that while at Secondary School in southwest London, in Brixton, among my very best friends were Jewish boys – because instinctively there was a Semitic bond that drew us together.
“Empty sacks do not stand erect”
An expression to signify persons bereft of initiatives and ideas but who merely exist.