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August 29, 2014 / 3 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Malta’

Before The Deluge: Jews Of The Mediterranean Islands (Part III)

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

The stories in this column are translations by Mr. Nollet from Die Juden In Der Welt (The Jews in the World) by Mark Wischnitzer, a long out-of-print book published more than seven decades ago in Germany. The book examines Jewish communities, one country at a time, as they existed in 1935 – a time before the Nazis began their extermination campaign against the Jews and before there was a state of Israel.

Jews Of The Mediterranean Islands

Malta

Findings in catacombs confirm the existence of Jews on Malta from the time of the Roman Empire until late in the Middle Ages. They came from Alexandria to this important crossroads on their way to Italy. In 1240 there were 25 Jewish families alongside 47 Christian families among the predominantly Muslim population. A few families lived on the neighboring island of Gozzo.

The little island of Conino, which today is just a barren rock between Malta and Gozzo, played a single role in the history of Jewish settlement, in that the false messiah Abraham Abulafia, whom the Jews of Malta refused to accept, found a not entirely voluntary refuge on Conino.

In the year 1492, Malta had a Jewish population of about 500 souls and Gozzo had about 350. The royal council confirmed the colonizing value of the Jews and spoke officially against measures intended to expel the Jews. The participation of Jews in various professions shows a delightful amount of diversity. Merchants organized organizations of tradesmen and landowners. Alongside doctors there were barbers and even assistants to royal falconers.

The execution of the edict of expulsion was postponed until 1493. The Jews moved to the island of the Levant, to North Africa, and mainly to Turkey. One encounters the family name “Malti” on many islands and in the cities of the Balkans. In Sofia (Bulgaria) there was, for a long time, an association of landsmen from Malta who had their own house of prayer.

In the year 1530, Malta was taken over by Emperor Charles V from the Order of the Knights of St. John. In its struggle on behalf of Christianity, the order had not shrunk from acts of piracy. Along with infidel Turks, Jews were captured and hauled off to Malta into slavery.

In his chronicle Emek ha-Bacha, Josef ha-Cohen reports how the Knights of the Order of St. John sailed from Rhodes to Malta in search of plunder. He reported about a ship from Salonika that was captured with about 70 Jews aboard. The captives had to send out their own members to find ransom money. At that time, a ship journey on the Mediterranean was a dangerous thing for non-Christian passengers.

A hundred years later, the English explorer Philip Skippen visited the island. He saw the prison and the slave market. Jewish slaves wore a yellow marker made of cloth on their hats. Skippon mentioned the case of one Jew who, after spending a year in prison, was sold for 400 skudi. “The prisoner possessed a pass from the government of Venice and believed himself to be free. When he struck a blow in self-defense against the man who’d bought him, he was placed in leg irons, and his scalp and beard were shaved away. He was led away back to prison, and received 50 lashes.”

News about the suffering of the prisoners on Malta reached Jewish communities everywhere. Ransom money was collected and an “Association for the Redemption of Captured Jews on Malta” was established. Connections with the slaves were maintained by Christian Venetian merchants. Special agents handled the negotiations, transferred the money and took care of the sufferers.

In the course of time a slave community with a synagogue and a cemetery were built. The slaves had a great interest in spiritual matters. For example, Mose Azulai wrote to Venice requesting Hebrew books. The Venetian Jews sent to him a Midrash and a Hebrew calendar.

The slaves bore their burden with dignity. Only a few sought to escape the torture via baptism. In 1798, the Order’s dominion over Malta came to an end, and the slave community was dissolved. Former slaves commissioned Cecil Roth to publish a conclusive study called The Jews of Malta, in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Bd. XII.

A small number of free Jews also lived on Malta. A new community arose in 1800, when the island came under English control. On his trip to Jerusalem in 1838, Sir Moses Montefiore found on Malta only six families. In the later nineteenth century, the importance of Malta grew as a consequence of the opening of the Suez Canal, and Malta accordingly received a migration of Jews. Today Jews live there only in small numbers.

Chios

Chios, in the Aegean Sea, has been under Greek control since 1912. This island can look back on a very old Jewish settlement. A historical curiosity is the story of the 15 Jewish families who, in the year 1048, had possession of a (Christian) cloister on Chios and who even lived in the building. In the twelfth century the greater community counted 400 families.

Before The Deluge: Jews Of The Mediterranean Islands (Part II)

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

The stories in this column are translations by Mr. Nollet from Die Juden In Der Welt (The Jews in the World) by Mark Wischnitzer, a long out-of-print book published more than seven decades ago in Germany. The book examines Jewish communities, one country at a time, as they existed in 1935 – a time before the Nazis began their extermination campaign against the Jews and before there was a state of Israel.

 

Jews Of The Mediterranean Islands

Crete

In biblical times this island was known as Kaftor. It had close relations with the Philistines, who already swelled in the Land of Canaan when the Jews migrated in, and this Kaftorland is conceivably the Philistine homeland. This cultural connection is confirmed by excavations in Palestine, and not only in Philistine regions either, but also in purely Jewish territories. Objects of the culture of Crete, such as barrels, tools, and jewelry of all kinds have been found.

One of the largest islands of the eastern Mediterranean, Crete became a destination for Jewish migration in Hellenistic times. In the Crete-ish city of Gortyna, there appears to have been a Jewish community as early as 140 BCE. In any event, when the Romans occupied Crete in 67 BCE, they definitely found Jewish settlements. The false messiah Alexander, who pretended to be a son of King Herod, was able to find followers and financial support on Crete. The (Jewish) philosopher Philo mentioned that Crete was heavily populated with Jews.

Under the rule of Venice in the 13th century there was a Jewish rural population and communities in the capital Kandia, and in Retimo, and in the Fortress Bonifazio. The Jews occupied themselves with leatherworking and butchery, and also in the production of very famous clothing and veils. Their occupations were agriculture, trade, and banking.

At the end of the 14th century the indigenous Jewish population received an influx of Jews from Spain (1391) and Venice (1394), followed by another strong wave of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492. Jewelry from the synagogues was sold off in order to pay ransom for captive Jews and buy passage on ships to bring them to Crete.

Intellectual thought was influenced by Italy, which was the leader of culture at that time. In the 14th century Crete produced the biblical commentator Schemarja Ikriti, in the 15th century the philosopher Elia del Medigo, in the 16th century the history writer Elia Kapsali, and in the 17th century the philosopher and mathematician Joshua Salomon del Medigo, a remarkable mind from this outstanding family.

As is the case of so many of the other islands of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the ensuing centuries saw a decline in the Jewish population. In 1897, there was a total of 1,150 Jews on Crete, who lived mainly in Kanea; by 1930 there were scarcely 600.

Corfu

While Benjamin of Tudela (1170) found scarcely a single Jew on Corfu, this state of affairs changed when rulers of Naples from the House of Anjou brought in Jewish craftsmen from the Byzantine Empire. From this foundation there developed in the 15th and 16th century communities of Spanish, Sicilian, and Apulian Jews, who had to leave their homelands due to persecution. [Translator’s Note: Apulia is halfway up the Italian peninsula on the Adriatic Sea.] To this day they preserve their particular customs and rites.

Concerning how they spoke with each other, the Byzantine Jews quickly enough learned the dialect of the Apulian Jews who, on account of their frequent contact with Venice, took after the Venetian dialect. On Tisha B’Av, the Greek Jews dedicated themselves to reciting Lamentations in the Greek language. Until 1884, on Shavuot, a poem written in Greek, with rhymes, was recited. Famous Greek folk songs with Turkish words were sung on Rosh Chodesh Adar. The first full translation of the Bible into modern Greek was prepared for the Jews on Corfu.

Corfu is one of those lands in which Jews traditionally were known for crafts, trade, and various kinds of heavy manual labor. In the quaint little backstreets from the Middle Ages which were inhabited by Jews, one could find cabinet-makers, locksmiths, cobblers, coopers, blacksmiths, plumbers, and the like. Jewish barge pilots, stevedores and porters complete the picture of the Jewish economic life on Corfu.

There were also great merchants who were involved in export and lending; excellent doctors; and defense attorneys whom one could see practicing in the courts of law of the 17th century. Jewish soldiers fought bravely during the defense of the Turkish siege of 1716.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were 5,000 Jews on Corfu. The deteriorating economy caused a significant exodus in 1901, mainly to Alexandria, Triest, and Milan. In 1933 there were about 1,000 Jews left on Corfu.

The synagogue liturgy of the Jews of Corfu modeled itself after the Roman rite.  Handwritten prayer books can be found in the Bodleiana in Oxford, as well as in various public and private collections. The British Museum possesses handwritten liturgies and poems written in Greek and in the Apulian dialect which were written by the Jews of Corfu.

The Maltese Yad

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

It was the last slave prison and slave market in Europe. The United States was already an independent country and France was in the tumult of revolution. The Mediterranean island of Malta was the destination for the slaves snatched off of merchant ships by an order of Crusader Knights that had first been set up in Jerusalem in the 12th century.

And the slaves in question were Jews.

The slaves were unloaded at the Valletta Quay even today still known as “Jews’ Sally Port.” The city was the headquarters built after the Great Siege by the Order of the Knights of St. John, better known as the Hospitallers. For the more than two centuries its slave market operated, the main purpose was to extort ransom money from Jewish communities in Europe in exchange for the release of the hostages. Some captives were used as galley slaves. For some fortunate others it was really “slavery lite,” as they were allowed to leave prison during daylight hours to hold jobs or even engage in commerce.

Malta is one of the more remarkable places on earth. It contains antiquities a thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt. Long before humans discovered metal, its earliest inhabitants were carving massive structures out of solid rock, some displaying amazingly modern thinking about architecture. Its vegetation and landscape look like the Galilee, while its architecture is simply breathtaking. Its 16th century fortifications were so powerful that they later served to defend British and Maltese forces from German and Italian assaults during World War II.

Malta’s devoutly Catholic population speaks a dialect of Tunisian Arabic (with Phoenician, Italian, French and English words mixed in). The Maltese like to think of themselves as the world’s last surviving Phoenicians, kin of Hannibal and King Hiram of Tyre. Speakers of Hebrew and Arabic can make sense of many Maltese words.

Malta is never mentioned by name in the Bible. The word “Malta” is Phoenician but is from the same root as the Hebrew cognate word for “taking refuge.” The Apostle Paul found himself shipwrecked there, making Malta long a center of interest for the Christian world.

Jews first lived in Malta in the days when it was still a Carthaginian colony. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Sicilians all came and left. Eventually the islands fell under Spanish rule. The Jews of Malta then met the same fate as the Jews of Spain, expelled the year Columbus reached the Americas.

One of the most famous Jewish residents of Malta was Avraham ben Shmuel Abulafia, a 13th-century Spanish kabbalist rabbi. A bizarre character, he dreamed of forging a monotheistic unification of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He managed to arrange for an audience with the pope to lay out the merits of his plan. The pope was horrified and ordered Abulafia burned at the stake. But the pope died suddenly just before the sentence was to be carried out, and the condemned man was released.

Abulafia spent the last two decades of his life as a hermit, evidently living in caves on the barren and still all-but-deserted island of Comino, just off the coast of the main Maltese island. There he wrote several books on Kabbalah, philosophy and grammar.

Abulafia’s career is of surprising contemporary relevance. The newest addition to the Maltese Jewish community is an old man known by all simply as “The Admor.” He claims to be a direct personal descendent of the hermit kabbalist of Malta. He plans to convert Abulafia’s “home” on Comino into a site for world Jewish pilgrimage.

* * * * *
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the 1565 Great Siege of Malta. For Renaissance Europe, it was Masada, Betar and the Warsaw Ghetto all wrapped up into one battle, with the important difference being that the besieged knights won. Suleiman the Magnificent’s army had marched all the way from Istanbul to the gates of Vienna. But a mere 700 knights of the Order of the Hospitallers, supported by several thousand Maltese auxiliaries, beat off a force consisting of between 30,000 and 50,000 janissaries and other elite soldiers serving the sultan.

Originally set up as a medieval order of knights in Crusader Jerusalem to run a hospital for pilgrims (hence their name), the Hospitallers were in the Holy Land until Acre fell to the Saracens. They moved briefly to Cyprus, and then took up positions in the waters just off Turkey.

They fortified Rhodes and defied the Turks for centuries until, in the early 1500s, their bastion finally capitulated to the sultan. In a sense it was the final showdown of the era of the Crusades. The knights moved their “langues” to the new front line of Christendom, Malta. And, yes, Humphrey Bogart fans, they really did pay the Spanish king an annual “rent” for the island consisting of a falcon, just like in the movie. But it was a live Maltese falcon trained to hunt, not a statue made of gold.

In May 1565 the Ottomans landed on Malta shortly after they had sunk half the fleet operated by the knights in a naval battle off Tunis. The Turks converged on Fort St. Elmo, which later served as a kind of Masada symbol for centuries of Europeans. With its small garrison of defenders, the fortress held out for a month against the Ottomans.

While eventually overrun, the knights and their valiant resistance broke the back of the Ottoman invasion. The sultan lost 8,000 of his best fighters in taking the fort. The rest of the Turkish troops were by then running low on supplies and water. When word came of a relief force of knights arriving from Sicily, the Turks broke and fled back to Istanbul.

The Great Siege was one of the most vicious, but also most decisive, battles in pre-modern European history. Prisoners were brutally massacred by both sides. The 70-year-old grand master of the knights, Jean Parisot de Valette, ordered the wells near the fort poisoned to stop the Ottomans. That poisoning evidently served as the inspiration for a scene in the malicious “Jew of Malta” play, written by Christopher Marlowe, ostensibly about the Great Siege of Malta.

The heroism of the knights in St. Elmo prevented the Mediterranean from being transformed into an Ottoman lake, and probably spared much of Christian Europe from being overrun by the Turks. In addition, it would inspire the Maltese themselves in 1940-43, when Malta was suffered through thousands of bombing attacks by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. The blockaded island played a critical role in interrupting supply lines to Rommel’s Axis forces in North Africa and directly contributed to their defeat. Letters of thanks and homage to the people of Malta written by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt are engraved into the walls of buildings around the city of Valletta.

Not far from the fort of St. Elmo, a different kind of siege would take place soon after the victory of the knights over the Turks. After the Great Siege, the navy of the Order went prowling for Ottoman ships to plunder, but quickly discovered that kidnapping merchants plying the waters of the Mediterranean was more profitable. And commercial ships at the time carried a particularly large number of Jewish merchants.

Though the treatment of Jews by the knights back at Rhodes had been civil, there was money to be made from capturing Jewish merchants and holding them as slaves until Jewish communities, mainly in Italy, ransomed their release. Thus, not far from Fort St. Elmo, the Jewish slave prison and slave market of Malta were erected.

For many years Malta carried for Jews emotional associations with misery and mistreatment. In Vale of Tears (Emek Habakha), the 16th century historian and physician Joseph Ha-Cohen told the tragic tale of a ship of 70 Saloniki Jews captured and enslaved by the knights. Still nominally under Spanish rule, the Inquisition was also established in Malta after the Great Siege.

A popular Jewish prophesy circulating at the time warned of the demise of four evil regimes, with Malta leading the list. The Malta slave prison and market were closed down only when Napoleon evicted the knights from the island, having stopped there along his route of advance into Egypt and Palestine.

* * * * *
At the beginning of the 20th century, the lone synagogue still active in Malta operated quite literally in the shadows of the Fort St. Elmo defensive outer walls. From 1915 to 1920, the rabbi of Malta was Nissim Ohana, whose granddaughter Pnina happens to be my wife. (I’ve written before about another chapter of his life, when he served as the rabbi of Gaza before World War I. See “My Gaza Roots” -www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/39170.)

 

Rabbi Ohana arrived in Malta on a transport ship escorted by two British destroyers due to fears of imminent U-boat attacks. The small Jewish quarter in Malta’s capital city was just a few steps away from the knights’ fortress. It was wartime, and Rabbi Ohana was invited by the British colonial authorities in control of Malta to wear a British officer’s uniform while performing his duties. He tended not only to the needs of the small local Maltese community but also to the Jewish refugees who had reached Malta and even some Jews who were among the prisoners of war held on the island.

Life was not easy. A smallpox epidemic hit Malta in those years and a son of the rabbi perished. At the same time the rabbi’s wife fell seriously ill and was hospitalized in a church hospital serving as the quarantine center. It was Tu B’Shvat 1916. She felt acutely uncomfortable in the ward, which was bedecked with crucifixes and portraits of the Virgin Mary and from which most of the patients were “released” only after dying from the disease.

In her fevered torments that night, the rabbi’s wife dreamed that her father, a noted Jerusalem kabbalist, came into the room dressed in princely attire. In the morning her fever broke and she was sent home in a horse-drawn carriage. But she believed the dream was a sign that her father had just died. The rabbi prohibited mourning, insisting dreams are not a permissible basis upon which to sit shiva.

It was only two years later, with the war was over and communications with the Land of Israel reestablished, that she learned her father had indeed died in Jerusalem the very night of her hospital vision.

In those days Jews on the streets of Valletta were often harassed because they failed to make the sign of the cross when passing through the many intersections displaying Christian statues and symbols. So the Maltese Jews learned to use back alleys to avoid confrontations.

* * * * *
On our visit to the Malta National Library, the librarian did not seem to know what a rabbi was. Her best suggestion about finding documents on Rabbi Ohana was to check the baptism records at the local parish. Shelley Tayar, whose late husband was head of the Jewish community, was more helpful. Well into her 80s, the feisty unofficial archivist for the community told us what she knew about Rabbi Ohana’s days in Malta.

The Tayars (also spelled Tajar; the word means merchant) had migrated to Malta from Libya 200 years ago. Her father-in-law accompanied Rabbi Ohana on his rounds and duties during World War I. Shelley couldn’t take her eyes off my Greek fisherman’s cap, which she insisted made me look exactly like the milkman Tevya. She was also hosting a Brazilian Catholic couple exploring the husband’s Maltese Jewish roots. His grandfather had left Malta for Brazil back in the days when Rabbi Ohana lived in Malta.

The synagogue behind the St. Elmo fortress was moved in 1979, when an entire block of houses was demolished to make room for a road. The current synagogue is located across Marsamxett bay from Valletta and has about 100 congregants. About half of these are members of the Ohayon family. Special candles that burn pure olive oil are lit in the synagogue every day.

Reuben Ohayon, the community’s young acting rabbi and cantor, showed us around the premises, but our special interest was in the furnishings still in use that are remnants from Rabbi Ohana’s era. These include lamps and decorated wooden chairs, including one on which the head of the community sits. There are also several Torah scrolls left from Rabbi Ohana’s days back in the old synagogue. One of those scrolls had been sold to the Jewish Museum of New York to raise money for the community.

But perhaps the most dramatic item we found that had been left behind by Rabbi Ohana was a yad pointer, used for reading the Torah scroll. “This is the yad used by your grandfather,” Ohayon told my wife.

* * * * *
It is late afternoon. We are in the large Hall of the Inquisition in Birgu, across the Grand Harbor from Valletta, near the knights’ fortress of St. Angelo, the fort that was never captured by the Turks during the siege. The building’s dungeon cells are part of the tour, as is the Inquisitor’s Torture Chamber.

I check the time and decide to conduct my own small impudent defiance of the Inquisition, just a few centuries after the fact. I slip into the Inquisitor’s courtyard and daven the afternoon Minchah prayer.

“You see,” Rabbi Nissim Ohana’s granddaughter winks at me as I reenter the building, “in the long run the Inquisition lost and you just won.”

Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

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