The Hidden Gem: Discovering the Jewish Heritage of Malta and its History

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    My journey started with an outstanding flight on Turkish Airlines, quickly making it my top choice for air travel. The business class experience was exquisite, with every conceivable comfort provided, making the trip incredibly enjoyable. Known for its exceptional in-flight entertainment and top-notch dining across all cabin classes, Turkish Airlines has rightfully garnered numerous prestigious awards.

    For those facing a four-hour layover at Istanbul Airport while flying with Turkish Airlines, I recommend treating yourself to the Turkish Airlines Business Lounge, exclusively available to Business Class passengers. This lounge is truly exceptional, spanning two expansive floors and exuding comfort with its contemporary design. Offering extraordinary culinary options and a plethora of activities—from pool games and theater presentations to golf simulators and complimentary massages—it turns layovers into memorable experiences.

    Turkish Airlines Business Lounge. New York Jewish Travel Guide

    “Savoring Culinary Excellence: Breakfast Delights at Corinthia Palace”

    During my stay in Malta, I enjoyed the luxurious Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa. Situated away from the hustle and bustle, it provided a serene atmosphere with friendly and attentive staff. The accommodations were lavish, offering spacious rooms with comfortable beds and charming garden views. The breakfast was delightful, featuring a variety of cold and hot dishes, including fresh fruits and authentic Maltese pastries.

    Courtesy of the Corinthia Hotel & Spa Malta

    Nestled in the heart of the Mediterranean lies a hidden gem with a rich tapestry of history and culture: Jewish Malta. Amidst the azure waters and sun-soaked landscapes, Malta, an archipelago known for its ancient ruins and vibrant heritage, holds a lesser-known but significant Jewish presence dating back centuries. From the winding streets of its historic cities to the tranquil shores of its coastline, the story of Judaism in Malta is one of resilience, adaptation, and enduring tradition.

    The main island of Malta spans 316 square kilometers, featuring scattered cities and cobblestone streets. With a collective population of approximately 450,000 individuals, the islands are home to around 150 Jewish people, constituting one of the smallest yet most vibrant Jewish communities in the Mediterranean region.

    Interestingly, the nearly uninhabited island of Comino, famed for its stunning Blue Lagoon, holds historical Jewish significance. From 1285 until the 1290s, Comino was the residence of the renowned Jewish mystic Avraham Abulafia. Originally from Zaragoza, Spain, Abulafia was a prominent Kabbalist and the founder of practical Kabbalah. He was an enigmatic figure, aiming to unify Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In a daring move, he sought to convert Pope Nicholas III to his unconventional ideas, an act that nearly resulted in his execution by burning at the stake. However, the Pope’s sudden death spared Abulafia. He later relocated to Sicily before eventually settling in Comino, where he declared himself a prophet and even claimed to be the Messiah.

    Avraham Abulafia, an enigmatic figure, left a lasting legacy through significant works such as “Sefer ha Ot” in 1288 and “Imre Shefer” (also known as “Words of Beauty”) around 1291. Despite the mystery surrounding his exact burial location, his influence endures. In the modern Maltese Jewish community, an elderly man referred to as “The Admor” asserts direct lineage to the hermit kabbalist of Malta.

    Avraham Abulafia, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    “Exploring Gozo’s Coastal Wonders: A Magnificent Voyage”

    Gozo Island, renowned as the most enchanting of the Maltese Islands, offers a serene retreat with its pastoral landscapes, quaint towns, and unspoiled beaches. While it lacks a Jewish population, it remains an ideal destination for relaxation, water activities, and nature hikes.

    A brief 25-minute ferry ride from Cirkewwa on Malta transports visitors to Gozo. Though the iconic Azure Window has succumbed to the sea, the area still boasts remarkable sites worth exploring. Among them are the Xwenji salt pans near Marsalforn, which offer fantastic photo opportunities.

    During your exploration, be sure to marvel at Fungus Rock, the Chimney Hole, and the Inland Sea. A highlight of our coastal tour was navigating a tunnel from an inland lake to the sea, providing a boat excursion through captivating caves and close encounters with the former Azure Window site.

    Cruising in a small boat amidst towering cliffs and stunning geological formations is a truly awe-inspiring experience. The Inland Sea, cave entrance, intriguing bedrock fossils, breathtaking vistas, and historical fort atop the hill all add to the allure of this remarkable area.

    “New Window,” New York Jewish Travel Guide

    “Spectacular Sunsets and Majestic Views: Discovering Ghajn Tuffieha”

    The Ggantija Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are among the world’s oldest freestanding structures, dating back around 5,500 years and predating the pyramids by over a millennium. They provide crucial insights into megalithic architecture.

    The Citadel of Gozo, a historic fortress with a cathedral, offers a glimpse into Malta’s past and panoramic island views. There’s speculation that a small Jewish community might have lived within its walls.

    Ghajn Tuffieha, or “The Apple’s Eye,” is a scenic spot perfect for watching sunsets and hiking, with stunning hilltop vistas. The Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, located on Malta’s southern coast, date from 3600 to 3200 BCE. Rediscovered in 1839, these well-preserved sites feature impressive entrances and are complemented by displays at Valletta’s Archaeology Museum.

    Chabad Center Malta: New York Jewish Travel Guide

    “Exploring Spinola Bay and Marsaxlokk: Culinary Delights and Coastal Charms in Malta”

    Our journey led us to Spinola Bay in St. Julian, where we enjoyed a delightful lunch at the elegant L’Chaim Restaurant, located within the Chabad Center and hosted by Rabbi Cham Shalom. The restaurant, beautifully decorated with sea-view tables and swaying palm trees, offered delicious, freshly prepared cuisine. It also featured a cozy synagogue and a diverse collection of books, enhancing our experience.

    L’Chaim Restaurant caters to visitors with kosher dietary needs, offering breakfast and dinner options. It also provides reasonably priced Shabbat meals and remains open during Passover, accommodating a wide range of dietary preferences.

    Don’t miss Marsaxlokk, a charming fishing village famous for its colorful Luzzi boats painted in vibrant blues, pinks, yellows, and reds. Many of these boats display the protective evil eye symbol on their prows, believed to ward off dangers at sea. The village features a lively market and excellent dining options, with a fresh fish market showcasing the variety of seafood harvested from the Mediterranean.

    Luzzi’s—fishing boats painted in shades of dark blue, rose, yellow, and red—New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Diverse Heritage Resting in Peace: The Legacy of the Marsa Jewish Cemetery

    Marsa Jewish Cemetery: Established in 1879 at the southern tip of Grand Harbor, this active cemetery features a gabled, arched stone gate with Torah finial decorations. Mr. Reuben Ohayon, interim rabbi of the Jewish Community of Malta, welcomed us. He oversees the Tahara ritual and is involved in various Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress.

    Ta’ Braxia Cemetery: Used from 1834 to 1880, this cemetery is next to Valletta’s Ta’ Braxia International Cemetery. It has about 120 graves, with roughly a quarter dedicated to infants and children. Cleanup efforts are underway, including transcribing and studying inscriptions to preserve their historical value.

    Kalkara Jewish Cemetery: Established in 1784, this is Malta’s oldest surviving Jewish burial ground, following only the Rabat catacombs in historical importance.

    The Marsa Jewish Cemetery contains one Commonwealth burial from World War One and two from World War Two. The gravestones bear names from various European countries, such as Poland, Spain, Russia, and Hungary, as well as from locations as distant as Australia and Shanghai, reflecting the diverse heritage and history of those laid to rest there.

    Reuben Ohayon’s family hails from Morocco, with many fleeing there during the mass expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492. His grandfather, Rabbi Nissim Ohayon, was born in Morocco, while his children were born in Portugal. Reuben’s father, Abraham Hayim Ohayon, became President of the Jewish Community in 1994. Reuben provided insights into his family’s history and notable Jewish families buried in the Marsa cemeteries, such as the Tayyar, Ebers, and Reginatos.

    Marsa Jewish Cemetery:  New York Jewish Travel Guide

    “Exploring Malta’s Ancient Jewish Catacombs: Discoveries and Debates”

    Another highlight of our visit was our meeting with Shelley Tayar, a prominent figure in Malta’s Jewish culture, at the historic Villa Tayara. This encounter held special significance as Shelley’s husband, George Tayar, is a direct descendant of Josef Tajar, the first Rabbi of Malta. Originally from Tripoli, Josef Tajar immigrated to Malta in 1846, and the family eventually settled at 155 Strada Reale in Valletta. In 1851, he assumed full-time rabbinical duties and played a crucial role in running the school for Jewish students.

    At St. Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat, a suburb of Mdina, Jewish catacombs discovered in the late 19th century date back 1,500 years to the late Roman period. These catacombs provide a rare glimpse into Malta’s ancient Jewish heritage within a primarily Christian site. Key features include the agape table used for commemorative meals and various headrests. Notable catacombs, such as numbers 10, 12, 13, and 14, feature menorahs and boat depictions, with catacomb 13 highlighting a menorah that symbolizes unity.

    The Jewish Catacombs: New York Jewish Travel Guide“Coexistence and Identity: The Jewish Quarter of Mdina”

    Mdina, often hailed as the “silent city,” continues to captivate visitors with its medieval charm. Its labyrinthine alleyways leading to quaint squares, all meticulously preserved, offer a glimpse into a rich history spanning over 4,000 years. Noble old palazzos, cultural treasures, and religious landmarks dot this historic landscape, transporting visitors back in time.

    The allure of Mdina extends beyond its well-preserved façade. It boasts fascinating museums, cozy tea shops, exquisite cuisine, and enchanting streets perfect for leisurely strolls. Yet, the true highlight lies in its panoramic vistas, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.

    Within the city walls, Jews and Christians coexisted, with a distinct quarter serving as the hub of Jewish activity, housing the synagogue and the silk market. Known as “slaves of the crown,” these individuals enjoyed protection and occasional favoritism in exchange for financial support. They identified themselves with distinctive red clothing and, in some cases, were required to shave their beards.

    “Jewish Silk Market,” Mdina, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    “Exploring Ta’ Xbiex Synagogue: Customs and Reflections”

    In the village of Ta’ Xbiex, the synagogue is nestled within the Florida Mansions apartment complex. Intriguingly, there are no exterior signs marking its presence, save for a mezuzah at the entrance.

    The men’s section stretched long and narrow, with the ark situated at one end, adorned with a marble plaque displaying the Ten Commandments in gold. In the center stood the Bimah, the elevated platform for Torah reading. A notable feature was the gold-embroidered blue velvet Ark cover, donated in 1946 in memory of Alfonso and Menashe Reginiano, brothers, one of whom tragically lost his life during World War II. Men’s chairs were arranged on either side, facing the center. Adjacent was a room for the Kiddush, decorated with children’s pictures and drawings depicting Hanukkah and other significant holidays.

    “Unveiling Valletta’s Treasures: The Upper Barrakka Gardens Experience”

    We arrived in Valletta at the perfect time for exploring this compact, walkable city. The buildings, crafted from Maltese limestone, are bright and vibrant, with charming window box balconies and unique door knockers, known as “il-Habbata.”

    We coincided with the 4 p.m. cannon firing at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, marking the end of the day with blanks. The gardens offer stunning views of Malta’s Grand Harbour and the historic cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua, and Senglea, and feature commemorative plaques honoring wartime support.

    Upper Barrakka Gardens: New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Malta, our final stop, provided a compelling look into the Jews’ Sally Port, a historically significant entrance used by “free” Jews traveling to Valletta. We also came across a bar named Jews’ Sally Port right at this historic location. In Birgu, one of the Three Cities, we enjoyed a leisurely walk through the village square and discovered Jewry Street, formerly known as Old Governor’s Palace Street.

    Malta is a perfect destination for every traveler, offering a blend of rich history, warm hospitality, and memorable experiences. From the allure of ancient ruins and the charm of stunning landscapes to the deep roots of Jewish culture, Malta promises an unforgettable adventure for all who visit.

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    This article and its photography are credited to Meyer Harroch, featured in the New York Jewish Travel Guide and New York Jewish Guide. The author participated in a press trip sponsored by the Malta Tourism Board.

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