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THE RAMPARTS of Valleta, at the entrance to the timeless city.(Photo by: BUZZY GORDON)
Experiencing Malta – the sun-drenched crossroads of the Mediterranean
History, gastronomy and Jewish heritage highlight a visit to this island fortress.
Here’s a fun trivia question to stump even your well-traveled friends: What EU country is mentioned by its exact name in the Tanakh? The answer is in Psalm 116, where the psalmist prays, Adonai, malta nafshi. It loosely translates to “Lord, rescue me!” The root of the name of this island has, in fact, been traced to its Semitic origins: the Phoenician word maleth, (haven), akin to our Hebrew l’himalet – meaning to escape. And indeed, this small island with its welcoming harbors has for centuries been a place of refuge for people fleeing adverse circumstances in neighboring Europe, Africa or the Middle East.

Of course, few people have had more occasions to flee persecution than the Jews, so it is not surprising that throughout the course of history, Jews have settled in Malta. For example, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, Malta was one of many places in the Mediterranean where they ended up. But these were latecomers as Jews exiled from Israel by the Romans during the Second Temple period ended up making their way from Rome down to Sicily, and thence just a few miles further south to Malta. The evidence they left behind is startling: burial sites in the form of catacombs, with Jewish symbology – the Biblical menorah – etched into the stone walls of the caverns.

Fortunately, the Maltese authorities have done an excellent job not only in preserving these 2,000-year-old sites, but also making them easily accessible to sightseers – complete with signposts identifying the Jewish tombs.

Menorah carved in ancient catacombs

It was a mindblowing experience to discover, in essence, a replica of Beit Shearim in such a faraway, non-Jewish place. Equally amazing, even after emerging from underground, is the feeling that you are still in Israel. The landscape, especially in the summer dry season, recalls Judea and Samaria down to the small fields demarcated by low stone walls and punctuated by olive trees. Another reminder of home was a signpost pointing out the direction to Ramle. What is strikingly different, however, are the ubiquitous views of the sparkling blue sea that stretches endlessly in every direction.

Malta’s cities, as well, remind the Israeli visitor of home. When the late afternoon sun strikes the walls of Valleta, the stone shines like Jerusalem of gold; and when walking through the narrow lanes of Mdina, alternating with vistas of the countryside, one can envision strolling through Safed and catching glimpses of the Galilee. But the feelings and emotions accompanying these meanderings are totally different: while Jerusalem and Safed may evoke a sense of mysticism and holiness, Valleta and Mdina inspire majesty and awe.

Valleta, the southernmost capital in Europe, is an urban fortress built on the water’s edge. In 1980, the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site by virtue of the architectural and artistic treasures it contains: St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a baroque gem that is home to Caravaggio masterpieces; the Grand Master’s Palace, with its sumptuous ceremonial rooms and armory containing fascinating weapons that illuminate the technology of warfare; and the immaculate city itself, which has been lovingly preserved throughout its five centuries of existence.

Valleta is inextricably linked to Jerusalem. It was founded by the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem after the Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land to Rhodes, and thence to “lesser Sicily.” As a military order that was also committed to caring for the sick, the knights relied on Jewish physicians and surgeons to treat patients. This dependence notwithstanding, Jews were second-class citizens as they could enter the city only through the back gate, the Jews’ Sally Port.

Mdina, meanwhile, which is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is another magical city with echoes of the far distant past. The site of the original Phoenician colony on the island, it was the seat of the Roman governor and where the apostle Paul himself brought Christiantiy to this outpost of the empire when he was shipwrecked. Mdina was the capital of Malta under its Arab rulers, and for centuries until the establishment of Valleta. Even here, in the picturesque alleyways, there are reminders of yesteryear’s Jewish influence – Stars of David on an imposing building, a plaque commemorating “The Old Jewish Silk Market” – further evidence that Malta is one of the few countries in the world that can claim an uninterrupted Jewish presence for two millennia.

Sign in alley in Mdina (Buzzy Gordon)

Both Valleta and Mdina boast gigantic moats, which have been impressively beautified, landscaped and repurposed. The artificial valley at the base of Mdina’s massive walls was this year’s venue for Malta’s fifth annual international food festival, which featured some six dozen vendors offering delicacies representing 17 cuisines. It has been expanded to four days due to popular demand, with plenty of choice of local and global dishes, as well as fine domestic wines and craft beers.

Of course, one does not have to come to the summer festival to enjoy the gastronomic delights of the Maltese islands, which also includes Gozo, whose salt and olive oil were prized in the Roman empire. Gozo today is home to celebrity chef George Borg, who is reviving the culinary treasures of Ogygia – the ancient Greek name for this island in Homer’s Odyssey – with items like exotic chutneys and infused sea salt. At his restaurant, Vini e Capricci, I enjoyed Gozitan cheese pie, and rabbit ravioli, made with a specialty of Malta – a unique breed of domesticated rabbit raised specifically for its delicate meat.

On Malta itself, an unforgettable experience is a meal at Rampila, a gourmet restaurant carved out of the ramparts of Valleta, at the entrance to the timeless city. There, one should not miss the aljotta, the islands’ savory fish and seafood soup. Malta is an island, after all, and the sea nourishes its inhabitants. Dessert is also influenced by geography: imqaret, a North African pastry stuffed with dates, and served with vanilla ice cream.

Kosher food is also available on Malta thanks to L’Chaim, a kosher restaurant and grocery store located in the Chabad center, situated in St. Julian’s, an area known for its hotels, restaurants and nightlife. L’Chaim is also where you can come for shabbat meals, mingling with tourists and young Israelis who have come to work in Malta, especially in the online gaming industry. Friday night dinner is served at the conclusion of lively kabbalat shabbat services held in a small room that has no space for women.

Malta's annual international food festival (Buzzy Gordon)

On Saturday mornings, worshippers meet up with the Chabad rabbi in St. Julian’s, and everyone walks together to the synagogue of Malta’s Jewish community: an apartment in the neighborhood of Taxbiex (pronounced Tashbeesh), about 30 minutes away on foot. Here, the lay leader of the local community, Reuben Ohayon, takes pride in showing off the seven Torah scrolls in the ark, representing both Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.

Ohayon is the contemporary authority on Jewish Malta, and he was kind enough to open the cemetery for a glimpse, which is the final resting place for an astonishing cross-section of Jews – from a soldier killed in Gallipoli in World War I to a couple from Tripoli who maintained the tradition of the menorah marking a gravesite. He also deciphered for us the Jewish origins of names that were modified beyond recognition, for example, the Italian surname Mizzi is derived from mi-Tziyon; or the Spanish Ventura, formerly Ben Torah.

Ohayon also related the story of the medieval kabbalist Avraham Abulafia, who wrote some of his works while living on Comino, the smallest of the three Maltese islands. The island is virtually uninhabited today, but there are those who would like to turn the controversial mystic’s former home into a pilgrimage site.

Another authority on the religious history of Malta is my excellent licensed guide Stephen Florian, who led me through the winding streets of a quaint neighborhood across the Grand Harbor, and under an 18th-century arch inscribed with a verse from Psalm 140 (Psalm 139 in the Latin): “Lord, the might of my salvation, You protect my head on the day of battle.”

Actually, most of us have seen quite a bit of Malta without realizing it. It is where a number of blockbusters have been filmed: Game of Thrones (season one, on Gozo), Brad Pitt’s Troy, Robin Williams’ Popeye and Steven Spielberg’s Munich, to name but a few (Spielberg now owns a vacation home in Malta). The island’s mild, sunny climate means few days of shooting are lost to bad weather, and just about everyone speaks English.

In addition to its rich history and ideal weather, Malta is blessed with all the attributes of a tourism magnet: blue lagoons, sandy beaches, shipwrecks that attract SCUBA divers, the mysterious ruins of prehistoric temples, and even legal casinos. Needless to say, Israelis have already discovered this island neighbor, just a 3-hour non-stop flight away. Air Malta flies from Ben Gurion three times a week, and five times a week in the summer. Israelis do not require a visa to visit.

Malta’s hospitality industry is also world-class. The Corinthia Palace, a five-star property with complimentary shuttles to key destinations on the island, is not only one of the country’s leading hotels, it has spawned a chain of resorts and hotels that are now among some of the most exclusive in Europe.

The writer was a guest of the Malta Tourism Authority.

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