The Hidden Gem: Discovering the Jewish Heritage & History of Malta – Part 2

Marsa Jewish Cemetery

(Continued from last week)

Please note that Air Malta has starting scheduled services between Malta and Tel Aviv on April 21, 2017, flying three flights a week during the summer. This will increase the number of visitors to Israel, including Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and also the number of Israelis visiting Malta, which has an average of 30,000 annually.

Marsaxlokk, is a picturesque fishing village that is filled with beautiful boats called Luzzis – fishing boats painted in shades of dark blue, rose, yellow, and red, with the necessary evil eye always present on the prow (it is said to protect the fisherman at sea). The village also has a local market and very nice eateries. The enormous fresh fish market shows you the variety of fish that can still be caught in the Mediterranean Sea. Sit along the water and watch the boats of Marsaxlokk. It’s really picturesque.

 

Jewish Cemeteries

There are three Jewish cemeteries in Malta:

1- The Jewish cemetery in Marsa, established in 1879, at the southern tip of the Grand Harbor, is the only Jewish cemetery in Malta that is still in use. Decorations resembling Torah finials top the gabled, arched stone gate, where we were greeted by Mr. Reuben Ohayon, who is the acting Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Malta, as well as a the spiritual leader of the community (Shaliah tzibur). He also purifies (tahara) the dead for burial. He has various other important functions, such as being a member of the World Congress, and European Jewish Congress, among others.

His family was originally from Morocco. When both Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, most crossed over the Mediterranean to settle in Morocco. Rueben’s grandfather, Rabbi Nissim Ohayon, was born in Morocco, but his children were born in Portugal. Abraham Hayim Ohayon, Reuben’s father, was elected President of the Jewish Community in 1994, after the death of George Tayar. He shared information about his family as well as others that are buried at Marsa cemetery, such as the Tayars, Ebers, Reginianos, and other influential Jewish families.

Marsa Jewish Cemetery contains one Commonwealth burial of World War One, and two from World War Two. On the gravestones, you can read names from Poland, Spain, Russia, Hungary and other European countries, but you also can read about Jews from Australia and Shanghai.

2-The Ta’ Braxia cemetery was established in 1834 and used until 1880. It is adjacent to Valletta’s main Ta’ Braxia International Cemetery, laying on the road from Floriana to Pieta. At least one-quarter of the cemetery’s 120 graves are of infants and children. The cemetery underwent a clean-up in 2016, and the grave inscriptions are being transcribed and studied.

3-The Jewish Cemetery in Kalkara, established in 1784, is the earliest surviving Jewish burial ground in Malta, aside from the Rabat catacombs.

The next stop was the Matriarch of Jewish culture in Malta. Shelley Tayar’s story is quite amazing and it was our first visit of the day to Villa Tayara in the area of Kappara, San Gwann. Shelley is a well- known persona in Malta, in part because of her husband, George Tayar, who was a direct descendent of the first Rabbi of Malta, Josef Tajar. Josef emigrated to Malta in 1846 from Tripoli. The family took up residence at 155 Strada Reale, Valletta, where the synagogue was located. In 1851, he became their full- time Rabbi and was responsible for the school, which was teaching Jewish children. Shelley shared some background information about the Jewish History in Malta, as well as personal stories, including the famous chocolate event during World War II, when her husband and poet Dun Karm shared a shelter.

At the olive grove, we met Jeanette, Christian’s wife. They run a farm and artisanal co-operative to better safeguard the heritage of Malta. Our lunch included paced tastings of local sheep’s cheese, real olive oil, and an authentic Ftira (a type of kosher bread). The views were stunning, the weather was perfect, and the hospitality exceptional. We finished off our lunch with some fresh strawberries, honey ring sweets, and the traditional Maltese coffee. It was a truly fantastic experience.

We departed the area to arrive in the village square of Rabat – the suburb of Mdina at the St Paul’s Catacombs. The Jewish catacombs form part of the larger St. Paul’s catacombs complex in Rabat, and were discovered at the end of the 19th century. They date back to the late Roman period some 1,500 years ago, and are unique, because they are Jewish catacombs within a Christian complex. Before you entering, you can see a small video about the history and read some interesting facts. Once inside, we received the okay to get a good overview of the construction of these tombs, and the furniture that was placed in them, as well as the crying vases that were found. This area contains many tombs – some even undiscovered to this day. Walking down the aisle within the main entrance, we found a couple of unique features: the agape table and head rests. The agape table (agape stands for love) was a festive table used to celebrate the dead. The headrests can be seen throughout the site. Walking along, we arrived at the site where the Jewish catacombs are . Catacombs numbers 10, 12, 13 and 14 were the highlights, because they shared views of menorahs, and even boats. Number 13 was the best of all, because it showed a menorah within the tomb that represented the joining of two people.

We also heard about a heated controversy over the bones. The Jewish community in Malta demanded that the human bones found inside the catacombs were given a proper burial, according to the Jewish rites, and should be handled by the Jewish community. A solution of burying them in the Marsa cemetery was finally reached.

The Medieval Hilltop Town of Mdina: I was told about the silent city, but it was still very fascinating, containing lots of side alleys leading to interesting squares, and with the appearance of a very well-kept town. Walking around in a place like this, with its lavish history of more than 4000 years, cultural and religious treasures, housing of noble family palazzos, really takes one back in time. It has fabulous museums, gorgeous tea shops, fantastic food, quaint streets to stroll along, unique shops to pursue, and above all, breathtaking views.

“Jewish Silk Market” Mdina

Jews in this area lived within the walls, side by side with Christians. There was a quarter (not a ghetto), where most of the activity happened in, including the site of the synagogue, the silk market, and many more. We learned that Jews had a good, and not so good, life at the same time. They were known as slaves of the crown – they were essentially ensured protection and in some cases favoritism in exchange for their support – mostly in the form of money. They wore red pieces of cloth to ensure people knew they were Jews and the men even had to shave their beards. Since they supplied the oil for the lamps marking the safeguarded areas within Mdina, they were often exempt from guard duty.

Florida Mansions

At the village of Ta’ Xbiex, the apartment complex, where the synagogue is located at, is named Florida Mansions. There is absolutely no signage, except for a mezuzah at the entrance. Once inside the synagogue, we had a quick tour. The men’s section was long and thin with the ark at one end, having The Ten Commandments inscribed in gold on a marble plaque above the Ark, and the Bimah at the center. The gold-embroidered blue velvet Ark cover was donated to the community in 1946, in memory of the two brothers Alfonso and Menashe Reginiano, one of whom was killed by a bomb during World War II. The men’s chairs were located on either long side of the room, facing the center. The women’s section was in the back, separated by a curtain. The room used for the Kiddush was off to the side, decorated with children’s pictures and drawings of Hanukkah and other important holidays.

The service started at about 10 a.m. and followed the Ashkenazi (European) ritual, even containing some beautiful Sephardic melodies, though the majority of Maltese Jews originally lived in North Africa, Spain, Gilbratar, England and Portugal. After the Torah service, they said a prayer for the government of Malta, just as Jews in every land pray for the well-being of their government. Then they said a prayer for the members of the Israel Defense Forces. The service was very beautiful and touching.

After the service, we gathered in the function room for the Kiddush blessing, held over wine and bread, for the Motzi, which was performed by Reuben’s father there – Abraham Ohayon, the President of the Jewish Community. Joining them were Reuben’s brothers Albert and Israel, as well as other guests. Reuben’s father shared his memories of the war and told us about how very little they had to eat and produce during the Passover holidays. Jews visiting Malta over Shabbat should take advantage of the opportunity to visit the synagogue and meet this warm community.

The timing was perfect when we set off for Valletta. Valletta, an old town, including the waterfront, is a must-see in Malta. It is surrounded by beautiful old buildings and terraced gardens are lining the waterfront. While in Valletta, we visited the most spectacular feat of high Baroque design in St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Built by the knights of St. John, as their mother church, it includes chapels dedicated to the different languages of the order, marble tombstone laid out floors, a spectacular altar, and the side museum, which is dedicated to the artist Caravaggio. It’s pretty remarkable for a museum. The walled city of Valletta is small in comparison to other world capitals. But the city, designed on a grid system, is made to be walked upon, discovered and to be enjoyed. Light and energy bounce off the Maltese limestone on the buildings that line the streets, with charming window box balconies jetting out from the facades.

I found beauty in something rather unusual: Door knockers, known as “il-Habbata” – these adornments come in many motifs, shapes and sizes. My favorites were the variations on lions, though I did see dolphins, hands, and Maltese crosses.

Renzo Piano’s gorgeous parliament: World-renowned architect Renzo Piano recently redesigned the entrance to Valletta, including a beautiful new parliament that looks even lovelier at night. The area is terrific! A mix of very modern architecture in an ancient city. It is absolutely stunning. Well worth seeing by walking around. We had lunch at Nenu – The Artisan Baker. I ordered the Ftira bread (there are so many different styles – and not all Kosher!), potatoes, various types of vegetables, and fish. The Maltese Bread is amazing! So much pride is taken in the way bread is made here, and it really shows (or rather tastes like it too!). It’s served with different kinds of dips and oils, and you’ll find it is some of the very best in the world.

Arriving at the Upper Barrakka Gardens just in time for the 4pm firing (using blanks) of the cannon, across the Grand Harbour, that used to signal that it was time to call it a day. This is the best spot where one can admire the natural Malta Grand Harbour. From here you can also have a good glimpse of the 3 old cities, which are: Vittoriosa (Birgu) ,Cospicua (Bormla), and Senglea (L-Isla). There are colonnades with commemorative plaques marking major events and the countries that helped Malta during its wars. We noticed the Albert Einstein commemoration (a loose Jewish connection) that was put there by the Albert Einstein Society.

Our last stop was to get a bird’s eye view of the Jews’ Sally Port. This was the location, where “free” Jews had to enter when visiting Valletta. It might be interesting to note that there is actually a bar located here called Jews’ Sally Port, and its has an orthodox logo.

In the village of Birgu (one of the three cities), we walked past the village square to find Jewry Street, which was actually the Old Governor’s Palace Street. This side street was named in commemoration for the previously named street.

 

Wherever you go, you feel history all around you

You don’t have to go to museums in Malta, because this is a place where you’ll feel as if you are walking through living history. You will find everything you need: Super clean water and an abundance of things to explore below sea level, if you are looking for an amazing scuba diving experience. Another thing you should do is to walk along the promenade in Sliema, where people are having their drinks as the sun goes down. Nothing beats this experience and you will be surrounded by the friendliest people in the world. You’ll never feel more welcomed anywhere in the world, and yes, watch the sunset, of course! The sunset is a magnificent sight, no matter where you see it, but in Malta – over the azure waters and against the yellow of the limestone – this daily event rises to a new level of bliss.

On top of everything else, you have Exclusively Malta, the company I mentioned earlier, to show you the best of the best in Malta, and its Jewish Heritage. This welcoming, English-speaking island is a must- see destination for every traveler.

By: Meyer Harroch
(New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide)

For more information, visit:

To plan a trip to Malta, contact the Malta Tourism or log on to: www.visitmalta.com

For more information on Malta programs infused with the Jewish Heritage Experience, visit

www.ExclusivelyMalta.com

Fly Turkish Airlines: www.turkishairlines.com

The Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa. Malta: http://www.corinthia.com/en/hotels/palace-hotel-and-spa

 

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