The Jewish Community of Malta

By Lawrence Attard Bezzina

The history of the small Jewish Community of Malta goes back to the arrival of the Semitic Phoenician settlers almost three thousand five hundred years ago. It is believed that they were accompanied by Israelite mariners from the seafaring tribes of Zevulon and Asher. The discovery of carved menorahs and Hellenistic inscriptions in a number of Jewish catacombs near Valletta and Birzebbuga attests to a community living here in Grecian and Roman times.

For long periods during the Middle Ages the Jews of Malta, who had settled here from Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa and Spain, lived a fairly independent and prosperous life. Several were doctors, a profession monopolised by the Jews of Malta at that time. Others were agricultural land owners and import-export agents, but the majority were shopkeepers and itinerant merchants. Although some Jews held prestigious posts, such as Avraham Safardi, the islands' Chief Physician and Xilorum, a diplomatic envoy to the court of Sicily, the community at large was often subjected to restrictions. Yet a degree of tolerance and privilege also prevailed. Jews in prison for civil debts were allowed home for the Sabbath and Holy Days. On Friday nights Jews were exempted from carrying mandatory torches, a precaution required of all citizens to protect the island against surprise attack after dark. Jewish communal elections were conducted with no outside interference by the local authorities.

... Out of the Levant came the Phoenician traders who colonised the islands, and with them came Jewish merchants who settled in the Maltese archipelago. The apostle St. Paul, shipwrecked here en route to Rome, introduced Christianity, which became the established religion. Then in the Middle Ages, by way of the Holy Land, decisively came the Knights of the Order of St. John, whose two and a half centuries rule left the deepest imprint on Maltese culture. Not without their own role in Malta's history were the Jews. Today most visitors to this sun-drenched island-republic inevitably find their way to the imposing, fortress-like Co-Cathedral of St. John in the heart of the baroque-style capital of Valletta. Under the gilded buttresses and orange vaulted ceiling, visitors gaze in awe at the high altar overlaid with lapis lazuli, marble and bronze; they marvel at the opulence of the religious art treasures - frescoes, tapestries, masterwork paintings by Caravaggio and Preti. In this grandiose church, erected by the Knights of St. John in the sixteenth century, scarcely a foot of space remains unadorned by a painting, wood carving or sculpture.

Few visitors to Malta, however, ever found their way to another house of worship, a few minutes away from the world - famous church of the Order of St. John or as they are better known the Knights of Malta. Inside an unobtrusive apartment house on narrow St. Ursula street, Valletta, in an unmarked ground floor flat, simply furnished with several rows of straight-backed chairs, is a synagogue. A minyan drawn from Malta's hundred or so Jews gathers here every first Shabbat of each month for morning service and on holidays.

Saturday morning at the synagogue on St. Ursola street - the atmosphere was always welcoming and intimate. When any worshipper arrives he / she is greeted warmly by the congregants already inside. While a lay reader chanted familiar prayers at the makeshift bima in the centre of the patterned tile floor, the shammas - seventy + British - born Stanley Davis, a veteran resident of Malta and holder of an OBE (order of the British Empire) for social and humanitarian service on the island, bustled about, offering siddurim, and arranging aliyot. Joe Reginiano and myself took it in turns to open and close the blue and gold velvet curtain at the Holy Ark. George Tayar, the genial sefardi community president, whose rabbinic ancestors settled in Malta some 200 hundred years ago from Libya, now sadly gone always invited me to sit alongside him. In late morning, after we had chorused the closing lines of Adon Olam, to the Scottish rolling of Daniel Miller, a table magically appeared laden with wine, delicious home-made pastries and savoury snacks, prepared by a trio of hospitable ladies. In between bites of fruity strudel and sips of Italian or Israel kosher wine everyone recounted recent gossips.

George Tayar could be seen proudly pointing out to some Jewish tourists that the "born again" congregation was not only now blessed with several enthusiastic and knowledgeable lay readers, but boasted among its members a devout family of nine, the Ohayons. The father - Avraham has recently been elected as the president of the Community replacing the much loved George Tayar. He would start recounting how the community had been without a synagogue for several years after the old premises at Spurs street in Valletta, were torn down to construct a new roadway. During that interim, Holy Day services were held in the Israeli embassy at Ta' Xbiex.

The Maltese Government through some coercion by the Attard-Bezzina family who had good political contacts with the Labour Government (One was speaker to the House of Representatives, Acting President of the Republic and later Plenipotentiary Ambassador to several European countries) had been helpful in ultimately locating a new site. the congregation sold one of its venerable Torah to the Jewish Museum in New York, to acquire funds for furnishing the new synagogue (at St. Ursola street). After several years of faithfull joyous service, which ushered in a few Bar mitzvahs and the only Bat Mitzvah (to my memory) and two Brit Milahs in its short existance as the Jewish House of worship, this small apartment has sadly been evacuated. No not by a pogrom - Heaven forbid but due to the state of disrepair of the adjecent building and sadly enough the Maltese Jewish community is again without its beloved synagogue and community centre.

Representations with the government at the highest level have been made and promises by Government ministers made that the synagogue will be re-built. The country's President Dr. U. Mifsud Bonnici has gratiously put pressure on the government and offered his help but (so far) nothing has been done.

Hopefully .......... Jewish Life still goes on albeit in a smaller pace. Last February (on TuBeShvat) a tree planting ceremony was conducted for the first time in one of Malta's newest towns. That of Fgura where together with the Malta-Israel Cultural & Friendship Society and the Fgura local council sixty three palm and olive trees and several oleanders were planted in the newly refurbished Reggie Miller town square cum garden. In honour of this, Fgura's Local Council named the garden "The Jewish Community Grove" and a suitable marble plaque has been erected. The importance of this occasion is that for the first time ever the small Jewish community has been official recognised as an ethnic minority in our country.

(to be continued)

If you want more information about the Jewish Community of Malta please send e-mail to Lawrence Attard Bezzina.

The Officers of The Jewish Community in Malta are:

President: Mr. Abraham Ohayon
Honorary Secretary: Mr.Stanley Davis O.B.E.

The Jewish Community of Malta can be reached at this address
P.O. Box 42,
Malta - Europe.