Dr. Carmel Vassallo has invited me here tonight to give a personal view, a ‘case study’, so to speak, of a Mediterranean Jewish family with all its typical ramifications extending through the whole of the region (and later well beyond the region.)
It is a story or rather a series of stories recounted in my book How Shall We Sing? : A Mediterranean Journey Through a Jewish Family, published by Pan Macmillan/Picador. In a mixture of genres – biography, autobiography, travelogue and popular history – I set out to take a look at each particular Mediterranean Jewish community in which my family has lived and to tell their story within the history of that community, moving from Malta to Florence, Cairo, Sfax and finally a kibbutz in Israel.
I start in Tunisia, where my mother was born and where part of her family had lived since the beginning of the eighteenth century (arriving there following the 1492 expulsions from Spain via Portugal, Venice and Livorno). The other branch of her family, on the other hand, could trace their history in North Africa from well before the arrival of the Arabs.
As a child, my mother lived in the seaside town of La Goulette. There, a large Jewish community sustained at least four synagogues. At one of these temples, which actually formed part of my mother’s childhood home, her great grandfather, Jacob Arous, officiated. He never wore anything other than oriental clothes, a jellabiah and a tarboush, and to me, growing up in Australia, he remains totally exotic. Even his surname can hardly be distinguished from an Arab name.
On my father’s side, the Tayars arrived in Malta from Tripolitania in 1846 when my great, great grandfather Rabbi Jacob Tajar was invited by the growing Jewish community of the island to take up the post of part-time rabbi. Over the next four generations, the family branched out from Malta to Florence, Cairo, Marseilles, Lyons and Israel as well as beyond the Mediterranean to Australia, Canada and Peru (my South American great uncles, in fact, never lost their nostalgia for the island, naming one of the sixteen ships they owned and which plied the Amazon, the ‘Melita’).
Criss-crossing the Mediterranean from generation to generation, my ancestors moved around in search of husbands, wives, a better education, a more congenial way of life. And in this process they built up an intricate network of personal and economic relations that covered the whole region.
The history of a family with branches all round the Mediterranean and beyond will also be familiar to many Maltese families who are not Jews. After all, there were large Maltese communities in Tunis, Cairo, Tangiers, Algiers and many other places, during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
However, in writing my book, I came to see that my family’s hold in every place they settled in was always a tenuous one, no matter how integrated they seemed to be in the surrounding community. The rise of nationalism and the nation-state in the first half of the twentieth century meant that their identity as Italians, Egyptians, Tunisians was eventually called into questions. Though the Jews of the Mediterranean were mostly spared the fate of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe (with the exception of the Jews of Salonika) during World War II, over a very short period their communities diminished or, more frequently, completely vanished.
Nowhere was this more dramatically the case than in the Egypt where my father’s cousins Enrico and Ida Nahum had lived happily until the 1950s. If the definition of Egyptian included being Moslem, then where was the place of Jews in the new order? The Nahums, however, were slow to realise that they had no place in Nasser’s new Egypt. But once they did, they were helpless to act since Enrico, having been born in Tripoli, had no passport and no foreign country which would take him in.
In Italy, that part of my father’s family living in Florence, had always thought of themselves as Italians. But when the Racial Laws were passed in 1938, they suddenly found themselves to be vile outsiders, just as Jews had always been in the Ghetto. Their Italian identity, which they had believed to be secure, was snatched from them. Eventually, they had to go into hiding.
And here, in Malta, where the Catholic religion is or was until recently the overriding defining component of identity, again my family has never quite fitted in because of their religion. This island was probably a scary place for Jews to settle in after three hundred and fifty years of being banned to them by the Knights of Malta. The Spanish had also expelled the Jews from both Gozo and Malta in 1492, imposing the harshest conditions on them than anywhere else in their dominions. Not only was everything they owned confiscated, but they had to pay compensation for the loss of tributes caused by their forced departure. Each person was allowed to take just one suit of common clothing, a mattress, a pair of worn sheets and a little food for their journey into exile. The twentieth century was to invent nothing new in heart-rending departures though, like Cecil Roth, I like to think that, as in Sicily, the Christian neighbours of the expelled Jews climbed on to their roofs to wave goodbye. All that was left behind of these people were echoes in place names such as Gnien Lhud or Bir Meru or Hal Mixi.
Between the 1492 expulsions and the departure of the Knights at the end of the eighteenth century, the only Jews allowed to set food on the island were those who had had the misfortune to be captured by the Knights at sea and brought back here to be ransomed. Entering through what is still known today as the Jews’ Sallyport in Valletta and held in captivity, they had to wait until the Jewish communities of Livorno or Venice or even Amsterdam could collect enough money to pay for their release. Thus, Malta became unique in history as being a place where the Jewish community was made up solely of prisoners.
When my great, great grandfather came here, there was still no more than one hundred Jews living in Malta though the ban on their residing here had been lifted, once Napoleon expelled the Knights from Malta.
Even now, when people ask me what I am, the most common response to my saying I’m Maltese is well you name is not. Which begs the question of how many generations one has to live in a place to be considered as being part of it. I used to be able to point to my grandfather’s shop on Palace Square – now absorbed by Marks and Spencers. Up to a decade ago, there were still many people around who remembered my eccentric, reclusive grandmother standing on the parapet of her house in St. Julians. Many people also knew my aunt Ondina, one of the first women to graduate from the University of Malta, and who was a pharmacist from many years, including during the island’s most difficult time in modern history, World War II. The poor often sought her out for medical care, unable as they often were to pay for a doctor.
As for myself, having grown up with a tangle of origins and having lived on the island no more than eighteen months in total, I don’t know if I can make a claim to being Maltese. In removing us to Australia, my father believed that we could avoid the crises of identity that had dogged his and my mother’s families. However, living on the other side of the world, we still could not avoid being asked who and what we were? My answers used to be evasive, therefore, to the point that sometimes I felt that people must think me ashamed of my origins. The fact is I hated being labelled and I still do.
And yet, at the same time, when I find my identity under attack, then I feel bound to defend it. In England, when people say Australians are uncultured, as they often do, my hackles rise and I become a real Aussie. The same thing happens when the Maltese are under attack or the Jews.
As I grew older, it became a sort of inevitability that I would want to untangle all my origins by writing a memoir. Yet, when I first set down to write, I did not know what I was doing. I genuinely could not see that the story of a physical journey round the Mediterranean from one branch of my family to another would only hold together as a narrative if I did not make a spiritual journey too and become a question for identity, not just my own but also that of the members of my family who people my stories.
And that realisation took me seven years to arrive at. I submitted draft after draft to a not inconsiderable number of publishers and, having received the usual dispiriting letters of rejection, decided I needed the help of a freelance editor in New York, recommended by a writer working on, of all things, an account of Jewish cowboys in the American Wild West. The book doctor ended up charging me a great deal of money without actually helping discover why my manuscript was such a mess. But she did put me on to the writer Vivian Gornick, who was holding a workshop on autobiography in Santa Fe, New Mexico,and suggested I try to get a place in that workshop to learn something about the genre.
Vivian is a wonderful writer and her account of growing up in a Jewish left wing family in the 40s and 50s, Fierce Attachments, is probably one of the most beautifully structured books I have ever read. She is also a tough critic, one who is well known in fact in US creative-writing circles as taking no hostages. Having read my manuscript, she wrote me a devastating letter which made me feel that I should, after all, shelve my project completely. However, in her letter, she also had a throwaway line, which was to give me the starting point I was so in need of. She said that in going through the manuscript she had not gleaned a clue as to what all those people were doing milling around the Mediterranean.
So there it was, the key to giving my manuscript a shape. Because that is exactly where my spiritual journey would being – with the goal of discovering what indeed all those people were doing ‘milling around the Mediteranean’. And from there, how my relationship to all those people is indeed the basis of what makes me who I am.
Once I was clear that the book would be a search for identity, I was on my way. And the lessons of the histories of the small Mediterranean communities described in my book became clear to me -the most important being that I could be comfortable with a multiplicity of identities. Which is why when nowadays people ask me what I am, I am happy to reply I am Jewish, Maltese, English and Australian – in any order of those words that come to mind in a particular moment.
By Aline P’nina Tayar