VALLETTA, Malta — In the Maltese town of Ta’Xbiex (tash-BEESH), a second-floor apartment in an aging residential building named “Florida Mansions” has functioned for 20 years as a makeshift synagogue.
Yet hidden in the wooden ark of this unassuming little shul is a remarkable treasure: seven Torah scrolls, including one inscribed on goatskin parchment, brought to Malta from Tripoli by Libyan Jews nearly two centuries ago.
Reuben Ohayon comes here every morning to pray for an hour and a half before heading off to manage his family-owned suitcase factory at the nearby Marsa industrial park.
“This was my dad’s baby,” Ohayon says of the synagogue, whose walls display posters of Jerusalem’s famous Chagall windows and a yellow-and-blue flag of the European Union, which Malta joined in 2004. “For years, we didn’t have a house of worship, so we prayed in our own apartment. Then my father started collecting funds, and we bought this flat.”
Ohayon, 58, has been the unordained spiritual leader of Malta’s tiny Jewish community for more than half his life. His grandfather, Nissim Ohayon, was born in Morocco and came to Malta in 1932.
“I taught the children here up until eight years ago, but had no time anymore,” he told The Times of Israel in a recent interview, trying to recall when the last Jewish wedding took place in Malta. “I don’t remember one. Maybe in my grandfather’s time.”
Despite a rich Jewish history that predates even the Roman Empire, this Mediterranean tourist paradise is today home to no more than 200 Jews out of a total population of 475,000. All live on the main island of Malta, with none left on Malta’s smaller sister island, Gozo, or on tiny Comino, which today is virtually uninhabited.
Yet in the late 13th century, Comino and its Blue Lagoon provided refuge and seclusion to Avraham Abulafia, a famous kabbalist who authored several key Jewish texts including “Sefer Ha’Ot” (Book of the Sign) and the meditation manual “Imrei Shefer” (Words of Beauty).
Archaeologically speaking, the megalithic Ggantija stone temple complex on Gozo ranks among the world’s most ancient structures, dating from 3500 to 2500 BCE — even older than Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids of Giza. A Phoenician inscription at Ggantija suggests a Jewish presence there as early as 1500 BCE.
Direct flights from Tel Aviv
Located smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta sits 80 km (50 miles) south of Sicily, 283 km (175 miles) east of Tunisia, 333 km (207 miles) north of Libya, and 1,974 km (1,226 miles) west of Israel. Thanks to geography, Maltese — the only Semitic language written in Latin script — is about 75 percent Arabic, 15% Sicilian Italian and 10% English.
A British colony from 1815 to 1964, Malta suffered aerial bombing by the Germans during World War II and was the only country in Europe to allow visa-free entry to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. During its early years of independence, Malta was ruled by Dom Mintoff, a socialist who flirted with China and closely aligned the island with Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
These days, despite lingering differences over the final status of Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bilateral ties with Israel appear to be rock-solid.
“Our prime minister’s visit to Israel in 2013 was his first visit abroad after taking office, and that was really a launching pad for our relations to take off,” said Cecilia Attard Pirotta, Malta’s ambassador to Israel. “Our first direct flights became operational in April 2017, and this has helped immensely when it comes to people-to-people exchanges.”
In early February, the Maltese Embassy in Israel relocated from the 14th-floor office it had been sharing with the Embassy of Cyprus for the past decade to newer, much larger quarters in Tel Aviv’s Sarona district.
In 2018, according to the Malta Tourism Authority, the country received 22,645 visitors from Israel, a 36% jump over 2017 arrivals. Air Malta now flies three times a week between Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport and Malta in winter, and five times weekly in summer.
Ancient Jewish bones
One of Malta’s first tourists was Paul the Apostle (originally a Jew named Saul), who was shipwrecked here around 60 CE on his way to Rome to be tried for spreading Christianity. Thanks to Paul, Malta is today one of the world’s most Catholic countries: Tourist brochures boast it has 365 churches, one for every day.
Yet the very word “Malta” may actually come from the Hebrew verb “l’hamalet” — to escape — claimed Ohayon.
Because Jews fled to Malta during the Spanish Inquisition, which authorities here began enforcing in 1496, many Maltese today have surnames with Jewish origins such as Amato, Bonavita, Castillo, Enriquez, Ellul, Micallef and Ventura.
Keith Azzopardi, Malta’s Catholic ambassador to the United States, said his own surname is a derivative of the Hebrew word “Sephardi,” meaning a Jew from Spain.
“I used to think it was Italian,” said the diplomat, speculating on his own ethnic origins. “Spanish Jews who didn’t convert to Catholicism in the late 15th century had to leave, and many of them came south to Malta. I’m still discovering the Jewish heritage we have here.”
Tourists wanting to see a slice of that heritage need look no farther than St. Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat. Here, several Jewish burial sites dating from the Roman period are clearly identified by seven-branched menorahs carved into the stone.
Ohayon said human bones discovered in the catacombs date from the Second Temple period, and belonged to Jews who had settled in Malta from Sicily.
“I met Father Camalieri, the priest who dug them up. We requested permission from government authorities to rebury them in the Jewish cemetery,” said Ohayon. As a volunteer for Malta’s Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), he eventually did exactly that. A tombstone at the Marsa Jewish cemetery — which by coincidence abuts Malta’s ornate Turkish burial site — marks the presence of those bones.
Valletta: Europe’s 2018 culture capital
The only one of three Jewish cemeteries still in use, Marsa’s gravestones date from 1887. Among the 120 or so people buried here are George Tayar, the late president of Malta’s Jewish community; Avraham Ohayon, who died a year and a half ago and was the father of current community leader Reuben Ohayon; and Owen Stirling Melhado, a 23-year-old Jamaican Jew from Kingston who was killed in the Battle of Gallipoli during World War I.
Malta has two other Jewish cemeteries, at Kalkara and Ta’Braxia. The first contains only eight identifiable graves, dating from 1820 to 1833, while the second cemetery — in use from 1836 to 1901 — has 56 identifiable graves.
Mdina, a medieval walled city whose narrow alleys are popular with cruise-ship tourists on day trips from Valletta, is today a ghost town. But at one time, one-third of its inhabitants were Jews, many of them shopkeepers and traders. In fact, a much-photographed ceramic sign on Carmel Street marks the location of the “Old Jewish Silk Market.”
In compact, crowded Valletta, Republic Street — home to the glittering St. John’s Co-Cathedral, the elegant baroque Hotel Domus Zamittello and the 440-year-old Casa Rocca Piccola museum — was also the heart of Malta’s Jewish community in the 19th century.
Under the 168-year reign of the Knights of the Order of St. John, Maltese Jews lived in near slave-like conditions, according to local historian Aline P’nina Tayar, writing for the website of Israel’s Diaspora Museum. She said that Jews could only enter and leave Malta by permission of the order’s Grand Master — and only through the aptly named “Jews’ Sally Port” in Valletta.
Tourists looking for the street sign indicating that port will be disappointed; it was removed during ongoing renovation work in Valletta last year, when the medieval city was designated European Culture Capital of 2018. But plenty of Jewish-sounding place names still abound throughout Malta, including Bir Meyru (Meir’s Well), Gnien Lhud (Jew’s Garden) and Hal Muxi (Moshe’s Farm).
A postwar Jewish influx
“Kappara,” a Hebrew term of endearment, happens also to be the name of the district where Shelley Tayar — considered the grand doyenne of Malta’s Jewish community — resides in a large house, surrounded by artwork and flowers.
Tayar spoke fondly of her husband, George, who died in 1994.
“He was president of the community, and so was his father,” she said of George Tayar, a businessman who brought the Marks & Spencer department store chain to Malta, and whose grandfather, Rabbi Josef Tayar, arrived by boat from Libya in 1846 with his entire family.
Other early Jewish arrivals to Malta included the Abeasis family from Gibraltar and the Borges da Silva family from Portugal. As their numbers dwindled, intermarriage with local Catholics became commonplace, though some non-Jewish partners did convert to Judaism.
“After WWII, a lot of English people came here because taxes were so low,” said Tayar, who in 2009 published an 80-page book titled “Shalom: An Account of Malta’s Jewish Community Since 1800.”
“But many of their daughters went to school in England, and they married people there. As far as I can see, a lot of Jews left Malta because their sons had no Jewish daughters to marry,” she said.
By the time of Malta’s independence in 1964, all the Jews had abandoned Valletta because the area where the synagogue was located had become a slum. Most of Malta’s 200 or so Jews now live in Sliema, Msida, Ta’Xbiex and St. Julian’s. Of those 200, only 80 to 90 are Maltese; the rest are mostly from Israel and elsewhere in Europe.
Maltese immigration authorities originally rejected the request of a potential Chabad Lubavitch emissary to establish a branch here, but they relented following written appeals from Ohayon and his father.
“Chabad is in almost every country, and apart from teaching the children, they had planned to open a kosher restaurant, which we didn’t have at the time,” Ohayon said. “That’s a necessity for the community, and for tourism. And that did the job.”
Chabad renaissance in Malta
Malta’s Chabad House is sandwiched between an ice cream shop and a private home along a boulevard fronting St. Julian’s Bay — home to some of the island’s most popular hotels.
On the ground floor is the synagogue itself, as well as Malta’s only kosher restaurant, L’Chaim, featuring Israeli dishes from shakshuka and schnitzel to couscous and shawarma.
Rabbi Chaim Segal, a B’nai Brak native who has lived here for the past six years with his wife, Chaya Mushka Segal, is Malta’s Chabad emissary. He says about 10,000 Jews visit the Chabad House annually. Besides Israelis, this includes visitors from Britain, France and other European countries, as well as a few Americans and Australians.
Some 20 to 30 children attend twice-weekly classes in Hebrew and Judaism, said Segal, a teacher who has six kids of his own. Unlike the case in some other countries, Chabad here has a close relationship with the established Jewish community.
“Every Friday night, we do Shabbat services here, and on Saturday morning, I walk to the other synagogue and help lead services there,” he said, estimating that 25 people generally come to Chabad for Shabbat, and up to 100 during summer.
“The community has helped us to grow”
In December, for the seventh time, Chabad conducted a public menorah lighting for the first night of Hanukkah at the entrance to Valletta’s Republic Street, next to the Parliament building. Both the president and the prime minister attended the ceremony; so did Israel’s non-resident ambassador in Rome.
Segal wants to raise at least €1.5 million (about NIS 6 million) toward establishing a permanent home in either Sliema or St. Julian’s; at present, Chabad operates out of rented premises. It’s also building Malta’s first luxury mikvah to accommodate the growing numbers of Jewish women settling on the island.
“Most of these Israelis are coming to Malta for business, mainly in gaming and casinos,” said Segal.
Indeed, Malta’s unemployment rate hovers around 3.7 percent, with expected GDP growth of 5.2% in 2019 — making it the hottest economy in Europe right now.
“Especially after Brexit, Malta will be an alternative for companies to stay within the EU and still pay low taxes,” Segal said. “We are not interested in taking people from Israel to live here, but this is a fact of life.”
The Malta Tourism Authority provided airfare, lodging and local transportation for this report.