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.
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.
“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.
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.