Lili Eylon
Lili Eylon
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My friend Gita: Once Maltese star, forgotten today

When a young Jewish man from Malta's tiny community was in search of a Jewish wife, he looked to Jerusalem. In no time at all, she was running the show
Gita (center) and friends, including Father Zerafa, to her left. (courtesy)
Gita (center) and friends, including Father Zerafa, to her left. (courtesy)

All who once knew her agree: she had appeared on the Maltese firmament to bring sparks of joy. Today, very few remember the shine of that star — the pretty Jerusalemite, who, 40 and 50 years ago, brought a mini social storm to the island of Malta.

Destiny had changed Gita Baruch to Gita Tayar, and caused her to be imported to the Mediterranean island of Malta, there to enhance the lives of many. Still, there were some conservative Maltese steeped in Victorian mores who did not approve of Gita’s egalitarian treatment of people and her quasi-bohemian way of life.

This is how it all began – and ended.

He was a fourth-generation Maltese. She was a native flower of Jerusalem. They met because of a solemn vow. George had given a pledge to his father on his deathbed that he would marry only a woman of the Jewish faith. A pledge difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill in a Jewish community that is among the smallest in the Western world and whose number of marriageable women was close to nil.

Malta landscape. (Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34711267)

In order to keep his promise, George Tayar traveled from Malta to Israel, where he met my friend Gita Baruch. At the same Tel Aviv cocktail party where they met, he was also introduced to magnate Sir Marcus Sieff, head of Marks and Spencer. At the time, George Tayar was a bachelor of 48, Gita Baruch four years his junior.

George, smiling at Gita. (courtesy)

The result of that fateful trip and meetings was that George Tayar left Tel Aviv richer by two prospects: a 15th generation (sic!) Jerusalemite bride to illuminate his life and a Marks and Spencer franchise for Malta to assure them a comfortable way of life.

It did not take long before George and Gita were wed and settled in Valetta, capital of Malta. With Gita came her 6-year-old blond Rina.

Today, 60 years later, daughter Rina recalls, “They were married at the Israeli embassy in Athens, Greece, in 1965, and, invited all the Jewish tourists to celebrate with them. It was such a treat for them!”

THE PAST

There are three major Jewish cemeteries on the island. Marsa, Kalkara, and Ta’ Braxia. Most of the graves bear Sephardi names of men and women who had been born in Italy, Tunis. Morocco, Tripolitania; among the prominent names on the gravestones are: da Silva, Ohayon, Hasson, de Yong, but there are also Ashkenazi names, some belonging to the refugees who had found a haven in Malta: Weisz, Richter, Miller, Eder. It must not be forgotten that Malta was the only place in Europe that did not require an entry visa. Indeed, Jewish families had been staunch supporters of the Allies in both World Wars and were hospitable to the soldier/defenders stationed on the island.

There is archaeological evidence of Jewish habitation as early as the Roman times. But in terms of continuity, except for the years of the Inquisition and the unfriendly stance of the Knights of Malta under whose 350-year reign Jews were forbidden to take up residence on the island, the tightly-knit Jewish community’s 800-year habitation has been continuous.

George Tayar’s great-grandfather, Josef Tayar, had come to Malta from Tripoli, Tripolitania, in 1846 to serve as chief rabbi to the Jewish community. George’s grandfather was likewise a rabbi on Malta, while his father was a businessman — at one time, when ladies liked to adorn their hats with feathers, George’s father dealt in ostrich feathers.

Gita, among the flowers. (courtesy)

Gita, scion of her venerable Sephardic family, who had arrived in Palestine from Bokhara (on her mother’s side) was a vivacious brunette who liked to laugh. She received her formal education in Jerusalem’s elite girls’ schools and her accomplished home-making education from her Jaffa-born mother Sara.

We met shortly after my aliyah to Israel in 1959. I was standing on a Jerusalem street corner waiting for a taxi; when one appeared, I saw a figure running to it — she had not seen me. We looked at each other, noted we had similar destinations, laughed, and both entered the cab. We became fast friends.

Gita was a superb hostess. I received my proof of that when she organized my very first party for the few acquaintances in the early days in my new country. For this “oriental” party (as we called it then), where we all sat on cushions on the floor — I had no furniture as yet — she prepared a steaming huge pot of delicious pillaw which all enjoyed. My young sons served the drinks.

About four years later, she left. Married. Moved out of Jerusalem. My loss — Malta’s gain. Though, from time to time, during the 26 years of her marriage and stay on Malta, Gita would make short visits to Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood to visit her mother Sara, a ramrod-straight figure of a dignified Sephardi aristocrat.

* * *

Gita had no problem adjusting to her new life in Valetta, capital of the small island; she felt there like a fish in water, initiating and participating in local community activities.

(courtesy)

Dominican Father Marius Zerafa, today 91 years old, who in the 80s held the prestigious position of director of museums, recalls, “Gita and her husband George were very popular in Malta and they did a lot of good. As I was head of museums, we organized exhibitions, especially a big one in London. I was at her place frequently and celebrated Passover, etc. with them. When she died, the service was done by Rabbi Herbert, but I gave the speech on her life and activities. I remember saying ‘Time shall not wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety….’ Have so many happy memories of her…. quite a unique personality! Could tell you so much about her!”

* * *

Gita soon gained the reputation of a fabulous cook and consummate hostess. Her home-made delicacies were plentiful and generous as her heart.

Gita, preparing the table for guests. (courtesy)

A member of Gita’s large extended family recollects:

“Gita’s and George’s home, beautiful Villa Tayara in Kapparra, overlooking picturesque Sliema Bay, was open to all and was always full of guests and flowers. Visitors — television personalities, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, businessmen, tourists, neighbors, family, and friends, naval officers or the pope visiting Malta. All remembered Gita and her charisma and their stay at Villa Tayara as a very special event.” Gita and George and their hospitality on a grand scale gave them a legendary reputation, which had a remarkable impact, not only on the Jewish community but on the entire island. Gita organized charity parties for many causes and her domicile basement was often used as a studio for striving artists. “That very special atmosphere one felt the very moment one entered the house unfortunately disappeared when Gita passed away aged 69. Much too early.”

Gita succumbed to a heart attack in 1992. Her name is enshrined nowhere on the island.

Today’s generation on Malta does not know about Gita and her colorful personality that more than some 40 and 50 years ago created a social upheaval on Malta. Only a very few remember. Rabbi Reuben Ohayon, who took over from his father as spiritual leader of the Jewish community, had occasion to meet Gita only a few times. He described Gita as someone “who always brought joy,” and who, together with her husband, George, had performed many mitzvot in the community.

Three years later, George, at 87 years old, passed away, and was buried in the cemetery at Marsa. By then, he had been married for a year to Shelley, Gita’s sister, a trained journalist, whose career had included public relations with the American occupation army in Germany. Shelley died of respiratory illness in 2019.

GITA’S DESCENDANTS

When Gita passed away, her wish was to be buried near her mother, Sara, and her family in Jerusalem (Sara’s parents were among the first pioneers of the city of Tel Aviv — a plaque on Sderot Rothschild is witness to the fact that the family was one of the 60 pioneer builders of the Achuzat Bayit neighborhood).

Gita’s daughter Rina and her son Gabriel live far from Malta — in Austin, Texas. Rina studied at Tel Aviv University, where she specialized in French and English Linguistics, her language skills later serving her well when she worked in Israel for General Dynamics, as well as currently, in her inter-governmental public relations work for a Texas oil and gas company.

Rina and Ron

Rosalind Cary writes from London: “I was growing up in a Sussex village when my parents suddenly announced that we were moving to Malta. The adjustment to life in Malta was very hard. My parents initially sent my sister and me to a Catholic convent school in the medieval city of Mdina, but the teachers soon informed them that we were spending our time outside the classrooms. So, reluctantly, my parents sent me to the Royal Naval School, Tal Handaq. It was the best decision my parents ever made for me — I sat next to Rina Tayar, who became, and still is, my closest friend.

Rina introduced me to her parents, Gita and George Tayar. The Tayars immediately welcomed us into their home and into their lives. Their home became my second home, and Gita and George my second parents. The Tayars made all the difference in my adjustment to life in Malta. Rina and I were nicknamed “the heavenly twins,” as we were so similar in appearance. But our parents could not have been more different. My mother — the quintessential reserved beautiful English rose — her slight haughtiness masking her shyness. My father, congenial but still a typical English gentleman. But Gita and George, especially Gita, were exotic and flamboyant in their character and mannerisms! Gita was vibrant and full of exuberance, encouragement and compliments. My father absolutely adored her.

Gita was particularly kind in taking people under her wing, always interested in promoting art and artists. Villa Tayara was not only a beautiful home filled with flowers, wonderful paintings, and art objects, but also a hub of social activity. Gita was not always in the best of health, but rose to the occasion when people arrived, donning her flamboyant colorful clothes, her make-up and jewelry, always encouraging and flirtatious, introducing visitors to Maltese residents and vice versa.

Gita dared undertake what others considered “revolutionary.” She once brought two Italian designers from Milan to decorate the house. Very modern highly lacquered tables appeared among the eclectic mix of furniture; cork wallpaper in the snug TV room and padded material on her bedroom walls — absolutely unheard of!

Talking to complete strangers was a skill I learned at an early age at Villa Tayara. Those strangers, I was to discover later, were often important people of different nationalities.

I returned to Malta to attend Rina’s wonderful wedding to Ron Arnold. We were ordered to place flowers up the steps in readiness for Ron’s arrival.

Rina and Ron, at their wedding. (courtesy)

There was a magnificent wedding reception held in the Marquis of Scicluna’s palace — brilliantly organized and hosted by Gita and George, with what seemed like the whole of Maltain attendance. My last and lasting image of Gita is in a sparkly dress, flitting from group to group, introducing people and making sure everyone was very well looked after: she was in her element.

Gita Tayar was simply incomparable — she had no equal.

THE CURRENT JEWISH COMMUNITY

The Jewish community on the island does not exceed 200 souls and is considered one of the smallest Jewish communities in the Western world.

Together with a synagogue located in a converted apartment in Florida Mansions, whose spiritual leader is Reuven Ohayon, a native of Israel, the Chabad movement also maintains a presence on the island. Its leader is Israeli-born Rabbi Chaim Segal. Together  the two officiate at the synagogue.

* * *

THE TAYAR FOUNDATION

A Tayar Foundation has recently been set up to guard the island’s Jewish legacy. Its chief organizers are prominent Jewish and non-Jewish personalities:

Julius Nehorai, chairperson, retired international real-estate businessman
Reuben Ohayon, president and spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Malta
Dr. Sarah Azzopardi-Ljubibratic — executive secretary, PhD of Arts (History of Religions)
Dr. Dennis Mizzi — projects director, senior lecturer in Hebrew and Ancient Judaism at the University of Malta.
Damon Camilleri Allan — treasurer and public relations, head of the island’s boutique tourist office, Exclusively Malta, which conducts Jewish historical tours.

The Founders formulated the following official aims of the Tayar Foundation:

  • To safeguard Jewish heritage in Malta.
  • To restore the Kalkara and Ta’ Braxia cemeteries on behalf of the Jewish Community of Malta.
  • To bring awareness to the general public, locally and internationally, of the history of the Jewish communities that lived in the archipelago.
  • To promote the study of Jewish communities in Malta since Roman times.
  • To hold events about Jewish History and Culture for the benefit of the Maltese community.
  • Research to discover more about the Jewish History of Malta.

All the founding members feel confident that their goal of $50,000 will be reached. They are hopeful that not only will the planned embellishments and the publicity thus created attract new visitors to learn of Jewish Malta’s colorful history, but they will also serve as an inspiration for renewed Jewish life on the sun-soaked island.

The Jewish cemetery of Kalkara dates back to the end of the 18th century and is the only material vestige of the Jewish presence in Malta during the modern period. In 2003, the Kottonera Rehabilitation Committee, in collaboration with the Jewish Community of Malta and the Archeology Services Cooperative Ltd, commenced a project of preservation and presentation of the cemetery. This effort is now meant to be prolonged and the site restored in order to make it accessible to the general public and shed light on this important part of Maltese history.

About the Author
Lili Eylon is Czech by birth, American by education, Israeli by choice. She has been a journalist since the days of Methuselah, having studied English Literature and journalism at Brooklyn College and the University of Wisconsin. She traveled widely as the spouse of Israeli diplomat Ephraim Eylon, and is mother to Raanan Yisrael and David Baruch z"l, who fell in the service of the IDF.
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