Malta, an archipelago located in the sunny Mediterranean, has been one of the best kept secrets for a Jewish Heritage Experience. Exploring a Jewish presence that dates back to the Roman Period, over 200 guests attended the American Sephardi Federation and New York Jewish Travel Guide’s special Jewish Heritage Malta program created in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority (MTA), Exclusively Malta, and the Corinthia Palace Hotel, held recently at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.
The Jewish Heritage Malta evening was opened by Jason Guberman, Executive Director, American Sephardi Federation, who praised Malta’s cultural diversity, including centuries-old Jewish connections still visible at several heritage sites, and noted how some Maltese are discovering Jewish ancestry.
The program included welcome remarks from H.E. Carmelo Inguanez, Malta’s Permanent Representative to the UN, and Joel Levy, Past President and CEO of the Center for Jewish History, who shared his Malta experience from when he lived there as a former Foreign Service Officer at the US Embassy in Malta, at which time he helped the community relocate the synagogue to an historic building.
The featured speaker, Dr. John Baldacchino, Director, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arts Institute and Professor of Arts Education, a scholar of Mediterranean aesthetics, discussed the history of the Jews in Malta. Jewish roots in Malta date back to the 4th and 5th Century during the Roman period as evidenced by several Jewish Catacombs with drawings depicting the Jewish Menorah (candelabra) that can be found at the St. Paul’s Catacomb site near Rabat. The long Jewish history includes periods of enrichment as well as slavery, depending on who was ruling Malta at the time.
Michelle Buttigieg, MTA Representative North America, then told the audience that the Jewish Heritage Malta program was launched in May, 2016, in recognition of the importance of the Jewish Heritage niche travel market in North America. “MTA invited, with the support of Exclusively Malta and Corinthia Palace Hotel, an American Jewish journalist, Harry Wall, and world-renowned photographer Richard Nowitz, to visit Malta and create a video and story about the Maltese Jewish Experience”, said Ms. Buttigieg, who then shared the video with the audience.
Jason Allan, Managing Director, Exclusively Malta, then presented the Jewish Heritage Experience in Malta program that his company designed. He spoke about today’s Jewish Community in Malta, which although small in numbers (less than 200), is still very vibrant. The majority of the contemporary Maltese Jewish Community originate from Gibraltar, England, North Africa, Portugal, and Turkey during the French and British rule from 1798. During the early 20th century, since the islands did not have a rabbi of their own, rabbis would often be flown in from Sicily to perform religious ceremonies. During World War II, Malta was the only European country that did not require visas for Jews fleeing Nazism and numerous Maltese Jews fought Germany in the British Army during the war.
Exclusively Malta can make arrangements for visitors to meet the local Jewish community and to attend Sabbath and holiday prayers at the Synagogue. Allan noted that two years ago Chabad set-up the first Kosher restaurant in Malta, which is centrally located in St. Julian’s.
Points of special Jewish Heritage interest on Malta include old landmarks and street signs. In the walled city of Mdina, where the Jews made up almost one third of the population, there is a “Jewish Silk Market”; and in Valletta, Malta’s Capital and European Capital of Culture 2018, one can see the old “Jews Sally Port”.
Even the Island of Comino, almost uninhabited today but famous for the Blue Lagoon, has Jewish roots. Comino is where the well-known Sephardi-Jewish mystic and self-proclaimed messiah, Avraham Abulafia, lived from 1285 until his death in the 1290s. During this period, he compiled his Sefer ha Ot (“Book of the Sign”) as well as his last, and perhaps his most intelligible work, the meditation manual Imrei Shefer (“Words of Beauty”).
There are three Jewish cemeteries in Malta which although kept locked, can be visited through prior arrangements with Exclusively Malta. The stories gleaned from the tombstone inscriptions, are a rich narrative which includes Jewish soldiers who fought in WWI and were buried in Malta.
Ms. Buttigieg, commenting on the enthusiastic response to the New York event, said, “The Malta Tourism Authority, together with its partners for the Jewish Heritage Malta Program, Exclusively Malta and Corinthia Palace Hotel, look forward to increasing the number of Jewish tourists by hosting similar events to introduce the Jewish Heritage Malta experience, not just in the US and Canada, but in Israel and other countries as well.”