Malta: A Hidden Gem With a Rich Jewish History

July, 26 2017

Less than 200 miles south of Sicily, Malta is like nowhere else in Europe. It sits in the center of the Mediterranean, three small islands surrounded by turquoise waters and bleached by the brightest sun. Occupied by one European power after another, the island nation sizzles with a mix of great food, fine wines, monumental fortresses and an ancient past—a past with deep Jewish roots.

Chosen as a top vacation destination by The New York Times and National Geographic Traveler, the island of Malta and her smaller sister islands, Gozo and Comino, boast great beaches, a thriving nightlife and more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any country its size. It also has a fine kosher restaurant, observes Holocaust Remembrance Day and was the only European country to welcome Jews without visas during World War II. The eyes of the sophisticated Jewish traveler have turned to this island nation and its capital Valletta, voted European Capital of Culture for 2018.

From my base at the five-star Corinthia Palace Hotel and Spa, it is easy to travel anywhere in this tiny country. Valletta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a short ride away with baroque architecture, imposing military forts and elegant churches. First stop for visitors crowding Republic Street, the main thoroughfare, is St. John’s Co-Cathedral. It’s like a glittering jewelry box, every inch gilded, painted or carved in ornate baroque style. Caravaggio painted in Malta, and his masterpiece, “Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” hangs in a side chapel. Farther down Republic Street, the 19th-century Jewish community thrived. The Jews’ Sally Port, a gate where free Jews would enter the city, is nearby. World-renowned architect Renzo Piano has brought Valletta into the 21st century with a dazzlingly modern parliament building that echoes the color and textures of the ancient buildings surrounding it.

Stepping through the gates of the hilltop town of Mdina feels like entering a movie set—and it was. This walled city, with its narrow alleys and squares rimmed with elegant palazzos, was the setting of the first season of Game of Thrones. This was Malta’s medieval capital when one-third of its population was Jewish. A sign marks the old Jewish silk market on Carmel Street. In medieval times, Jews were responsible for supplying the oil in the street lamps, exempting them from guard duty.

The walled city of Mdina, early capital of Malta, was one-third Jewish during Medieval times. (Gail P. Dubov)

Both Malta and Gozo are dotted with prehistoric Stonehenge-like temples, the oldest freestanding structures in the world—a thousand years older than the pyramids of Giza! The Ggantija Temples on Gozo, probably built for worshipping a goddess, are the most spectacular.

The Catacombs of St. Paul date back to Roman times. Recently reopened, they were early burial tombs of Christians and Jews, surprisingly well preserved. Carved menorahs can be seen etched in the limestone archways and tomb walls. One, a burial spot of a husband and wife who died 2,000 years ago, displays a menorah in the stone above them, proclaiming that a Jewish couple had been buried there.

Malta’s colorful fishing village, Marsaxlokk, is a photographer’s dream, with fishing boats in shades of blue, yellow and red bobbing in the harbor. All have the requisite evil eye on their prow to protect fisherman at sea. The village has a daily open-air market and restaurants edging the harbor. This is where you’ll sit down to the freshest fish on the island.

The scenic fishing village of Marsaxlokk is the perfect stop for an al fresco lunch. (Gail P. Dubov)

“I go to the market and get not what’s fresh for the day, but what’s fresh that hour!” says a chef whose restaurant Tal-Petut in Birgu has no fixed menu. Whether eating ftira (local flat bread which is kosher) or fenkata (rabbit stew), every meal is a foodie’s delight. A Chabad in St. Julian runs “L’Chaim” kosher restaurant with fresh, well-prepared local fish dishes and Israeli specialties. Open daily, they serve Shabbat dinner every Friday night and host a seder every Passover. Wine, produced on the island, is so good there isn’t enough to export. It all gets uncorked by the locals.

The kosher restaurant, L’Chaim is run by Malta’s Chabad and serves freshly prepared Mediterranean cuisine. (Gail P. Dubov)

Malta has had Jews on its shores since Phoenician traders landed in the 9th century B.C. Walking Valletta’s honey-colored limestone ramparts high above the harbor, it’s clear why this tiny nation has had a revolving door of invaders. Arabs arrived, leaving their mark on the language. Charles V of Spain gave Malta to the Knights of St. John for an annual rent of one falcon (Maltese falcon, sound familiar?). Over 200 years, the Knights built the elegant baroque city of Valletta into the cultural pearl of the Mediterranean.

Jewish families arrived from Spain in the 15th century, fleeing the Inquisition. But eventually many were forced to convert to Christianity. To this day, family names with a Jewish origin such as Michallef, Ellul, Hellul and Azzopardi dominate the island. Napolean arrived and seized the island, freeing Jewish slaves. It was the British who ruled from 1800, establishing English as an official language and Valletta as an important crossroads to the Middle and Far East. Jews from Gibraltar, England, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, North Africa and other Mediterranean cities immigrated to Malta and established businesses.

Rabbi Josef Tajar, a native of Tripoli, arrived in 1846 as the first modern Rabbi of the Jewish community. His grandson, the late George Tayar, a prominent Maltese businessman and philanthropist, brought the British department store Marks & Spencer to Valletta. Today, George’s wife, Shelley, witty grand dame of Malta’s Jewish community—and author of a book on the islands’ Jews—welcomes visitors into her sun-filled home, regaling them with fascinating tales. Art fills the house and a collection of old menorahs graces the top of a china cabinet. “There’s cake on the table, have some,” Shelley, well-coiffed and in her 80s, insists.

The total population of Malta is 430,000, including about 150 Jews, most of whom live on the main island and make up one of the smallest active Jewish communities in the Mediterranean. Rabbi Reuben Ohayon leads Sabbath services twice a month in a synagogue originally funded with donations from the U.S. and UK. It is an apartment building ironically named “Florida Mansions” in the suburb of Ta’Xbiex (pronounced Tash-Beesh in Maltese, a dialect of Arabic).    A third-generation rabbi, his Moroccan grandfather arrived in Malta from Portugal in 1934. Reuben serves as rabbi, religious instructor and purifies (tahara) the dead for burial. There are three Jewish cemeteries in Malta, but only Marsa, established in 1879, is still in use. It contains gravestones from two WWII soldiers and Jews from as far as Australia and Shanghai.

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18 thoughts on “Malta: A Hidden Gem With a Rich Jewish History

  1. Mendy says:

    Very interesting article. Wasn’t on my radar, now will consider.

  2. Fascinating! Very interesting and intriguing article about an unexpected Jewish gem. Dubov brings it alive.

  3. Matt Friedman says:

    I visited Malta a couple of weeks ago. (I wish this article came out before we left.) Among the sites I visited was the Inquisitor’s Palace Museum. It described the Roman (vs. the Spanish) Inquisition, but did not specifically mention Jews… Malta is definitely worth a visit.

  4. Miryam Soman Ginsburg says:

    Thank you Gail P Dubov for this informative beautifully written article about Malta & it’s neighboring islands. From your vivid descriptions it certainly seems to be a little known gem worth visiting. I found it’s Jewish history a true discovery quite interesting.

  5. Ger says:

    Thanks Gail. Wonderful story and nice photos too.

  6. Aline Tayar says:

    Am amused to read about the self-styled Grande Dame of the Jewish Community. But will plug my own memoir How Shall We Sing?: A Mediterranean Journey Through a Jewish Family (Pan Macmillan/Picador) published in 2001.

    1. Betty Lee says:

      It amused me too. But she should have said it was Georges first wife Gita was the great Grande Dame. Shelly is as its said “Self Styled.” But for me the Jewish Community days gone by was George Tayar, Gita and Rita and Stanley Davis.

      1. Christine says:

        George and Gita Tayar what an amazing couple. Fondly remembered

  7. Fernando Gonzalez says:

    Gail P. Dubov displays a lack of knowledge about history. How else can one explain the assertion “Charles V of France gave Malta to the Knights of St. John “? France? Really?

    1. Gail Dubov says:

      Thanks very much for pointing out this error. Yes, Charles V of Spain (and later, the Roman Empire) granted Malta to the Knights. An embarrassing editing error on my part!

  8. JB Silver says:

    The article is very well written, and quite accurate, but with a few lacunae:

    1. There is an ancient (2,800 yr. old) Hebrew inscription incised onto the floor in front of an ‘altar niche’ in one of the 5,800 yr. old Ggantija Temples on Gozo, reading, from left to right (Hebrew was not yet codified to read from right to left), “LBYT ABA YHWH” {‘To/For House [of] Father Yahweh’}. It was first thought genuine, then thought a 19th C. fake made by Victorian Christian ladies; now known to be genuine.

    2. From 1285-1290 or 1291, Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, the founder of the school of “Prophetic Kabbalah”, lived on Comino, and there composed his “Sefer ha-Ott”.

    3. A Jewish craftsman is credited with producing the magnificent altar of St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.

    4. One can get ‘the freshest fish’ anywhere, if one has a friend who fishes, and makes it immediately! This was my experience on Gozo…
    And, while most places in Marsaxlokk serve really fresh fish, ALWAYS check the fish’s eyes: if they are convex (sticking out) it is fresh; if they are flat, it is a day or two old; if they are concave (inward), it is NOT fresh. This is true for everywhere, unless you saw the fish swimming a moment earlier.

    And one mistake: It was Charles I of SPAIN, in his position as king of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, who handed Malta to the Hospitaller Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, after they were expelled by the Ottoman Turks, first from Cyprus and then, in 1530, from Rhodes, after being expelled from Acre & Atlit in what’s now Israel, in 1291.
    JB Silver

    1. Hi JB. The inscription at Ggantija in Gozo is fake. That was put there sometime in the 1800s. I clarified this with the curator.

  9. Sisi says:

    Maltese is not a dialect of Arabic. It is a language, semitic in origin, but one which has taken on words from o ther languages and made them its own.

    1. Gail Dubov says:

      Malta is a semitic language with roots mainly found in Arabic. The language developed from a Sicilian Arabic, a form that developed in Sicily and Malta between the 9th and 14th centuries. It’s considered a hybrid language, with 1/3 of the vocabulary in Arabic.

  10. Arlen Kane says:

    Thank you for this intriguing article that has inspired a desire to visit to visit Malta. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words – but your words have painted a picture of this fascinating place and its history. Thank you for revealing Malta’s little known history of its tie to Jews. The island beckons me.

  11. Stefan Micallef says:

    Dear Gail

    What an interesting article. I am Maltese living outside the island but visit the island frequently. I am also married to a Jewish woman of Sephardi origin. I am interested in the point you make of family names with a Jewish origin in particular Michallef and would like to trace its origins and whether there is any link with my family name Micallef.


    Stefan Micallef

  12. TS says:

    i’ve been to Malta twice – once in the winter months (I’m a NYCer, so I think it was January) and once in June. I am not a world traveler, but have spent considerable time in Israel, and some in the UK, and the Caribbean quite a bit.

    My take: I have extremely positive things to say about Malta, but really, it is the situation I found myself in that left me so happy. I visited friends in Sliema. They are American ex-pats. They are in the Cambridge apartments (something like that.) Sliema is very international. Malta has english as one of its official languages, and I believe, makes a lot of overtures to Americans and others for tax reasons.

    Here’s my report in brief: Beautiful weather. CHEAP. No crime. No homelessness. No aggressive merchants. BEST swimming of my life (there is a small beach area – no sand (better) – no surf (better) beautiful water – it is over a foot bridge by The Point (the mall area in Sliema.

    What else? Malta is densely populated in parts – but not everywhere. It is a stunningly beautiful place. GO in SUMMER. Gozo is incredible. Period. I am not a very spiritual person, but standing in a quiet town in Gozo midday – the quiet, the light wind, the beautiful town, the lack of traffic – you feel pretty incredible. The internationals (think an almost James Bond film feel at times) congregate in Sliema, and up to St. Juliens. In Paceville (in St Julians) there are casinos, a red light district (pretty gross) and lots of restaurants. Fun for the young or the famished. (Paceville, thankfully is VERY small. Very intense.)

    AirBnB is Cheap. the whole island is inexpensive. there is the Three towns, or three cities, area – beautiful. there is valetta, beautiful. there is a lot of history. beautiful. there is a lot of catholic churches – beautiful. very old.

    great for a family. stay in sliema! stay for the summer, and use cheap and lovely air malta to see all of europe! if coming from US – consider Turkish Air – great airline! but you go to istanbul. but: you prob save money. great little airport on malta.

  13. Rowena Tayar says:

    I would love to find out more about our family history. My Dad Clifford George Tayar met George and Gita on malta. Kind regards
    Rowena Tatar.

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