Steven Plaut: The Maltese Yad — Jewish Slaves in 12th Century Malta

Source: Jewish Press, 4-28-11

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….READ MORE

Adam Goodheart: Rabbi Morris J. Raphall and the Rebellion

Source: NYT, 3-7-11

New York, March 1861

The great national debate over slavery brought fame very suddenly to a certain owlish, bespectacled clergyman. Not long before, he had been almost unknown beyond the walls of his own synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun on Green Street in lower Manhattan. Now his name was in newspapers, and his sermon in bookshops from Boston to New Orleans. Like so many men of God – both then and now – he stepped out of obscurity when he stepped into politics, quoting ancient texts to answer modern questions.

“The Bible View of Slavery”: this was the title of the pamphlet that had brought Rabbi Morris J. Raphall such notoriety. He had first delivered the address on Jan. 4, 1861, on the occasion of the national “day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer throughout the Union” proclaimed by President James Buchanan in response to the secession crisis. The learned sage delved deep into the Hebrew Bible – citing the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Job and even Exodus – before concluding that “slaveholding is not only recognized and sanctioned as an integral part of the social structure … [but] the property in slaves is placed under the same protection as any other species of lawful property.”

Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, 1860.Library of Congress Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, 1860.

An ardent Unionist, Rabbi Raphall proclaimed from the pulpit that he was “no friend to slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of slavery. But I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of G-d, the Bible view of slavery.” The descendants of Noah’s son Ham – that is, Africans – had been cursed by God, he said, so that “in his own native home, and generally throughout the world, the unfortunate negro is indeed the meanest of slaves.”

To be sure, Raphall also found reason to chastise American slaveholders. According to the Bible, he said, “the slave is a person in whom the dignity of human nature is to be respected; he has rights. Whereas, the heathen view of slavery which prevailed at Rome, and which, I am sorry to say, is adopted in the South, reduces the slave to a thing, and a thing can have no rights.” Still, in the end, abolitionists who tried to meddle with slavery were opposing the Lord’s will…. READ MORE

A Slave to History: Jews and Slavery in the Civil War South

Source: Jewish Exponent, 3-3-11


André Braugher (center) and André Holland (left) let freedom ring, as does Jay Wilkinson as the son of their erstwhile master in “The Whipping Man.”

Four questions? More like a score.

That’s what playwright Matthew Lopez has raised in “The Whipping Man,” his Civil War drama of uncivil behavior between peoples, now playing off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center.

Of all those raised, possibly the key question is: Why is this play different from all others?

Because this one brings to the seder table two slaves who have adopted their master’s Jewish faith, even as the owner’s son has lost his.

In putting out the chair for Elijah, Lopez has also pulled out the chair from under audience’s expectations as “The Whipping Man” gives a whuppin’ to prosaically produced plays.

As rallying cry, the South will rise again begs debate; but what made a New York Hispanic non-Jewish writer with no real professional theatrical background rise to the occasion of such a complex, if arcane, topic as Jews, slaves and internecine infernos?

In a way, argues Lopez, he’s just a slave to history. “I’m an American history geek,” says the 33-year-old with a thirst for Civil War arcana — and a big fan of the movie “Glory” — whose research revealed that some slaves owned by Jews took the religion as their own.

He’s made a matzah meal out of it. But then, Lopez owns up to just following history forged by other writers: “The maxim goes, ‘Write what you know.’ ”

But who knew the rites and rituals of Judaism could be played out — as they are nightly — in such compelling fashion, with the end of the Civil War, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the start of Passover rolled into an historical/theatrical troika that actually occurred in April 1865?

A number of regional theaters did, staging the work — which actually started out in life as a 20-minute playlet — before the Manhattan Theater Club took the drama, as well as the young University of South Florida graduate and erstwhile actor, under its wing, pushing him from the stage wings into the spotlight.

Sharing center stage for audience attention is another of Lopez’s luminous conceits and questions: “How does it affect an individual to suddenly be free?” he asks in reference to the two slaves assayed by André Braugher and André Holland, free men ministering to the gangrenous leg of their owner’s son (Jay Wilkinson), in the brave new and apocalyptic world of post-Appomattox.

This mix of the blues and grays colors the play in a spectrum of splashy debates, cleverly conceived; indeed, this unchained melody of free verse has a Hebraic lilt to it.

“Pockets of our history,” says the playwright of the epiphany that is the existence of black Jewish slaves, “yield some fascinating results.”

Truth Is Stranger …
And, yes, says Lopez with a laugh, he does understand that the tableaux of the two André characters sitting down for their seder and hewing to the Haggadah “does seem unbelievable,” even as the ritual’s parallels in African-Americans’ own exodus are sketched out clearly.

But Lopez did get the hechsher of one major historian: Philadelphia native Jonathan Sarna, chief curator for the National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall here, as well as the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.

The professor’s imprimatur impressed the playwright of his own slavish devotion: “I felt, ‘Oh, my God! I did my homework correctly.’ ”

Gold star, says Sarna, who was asked by the Manhattan Theater Club for historical advice about the script’s accuracy. As for Torah-spouting slaves adhering to kashrut — as the freed characters do in “The Whipping Man” — it’s all, indeed, kosher.

Only in America?

“More so in the Caribbean,” notes Sarna. Not that such Jewish adherents were common in the States, “but it’s plausible. I can think of cases where it occurred, usually as products of liaisons” between Jewish masters and female slaves.

Historical Embarrassment?
As for the nettlesome injection into the play of the moral minefield manifested by Jews owning slaves — a case of hide the afikomen and the historical embarrassment?

Replies Sarna: “It’s a very real issue: Any Jew in the South who could afford one, had one.”

Let these people go: Two types of audiences have helped sustain the see-worthy play by Lopez (whose next project, “Tio Pepe,” about a Puerto Rican family, hits closer to home): Black and Jewish theatergoers, says Lopez, not only have been showing up in droves for “The Whipping Man,” “they are taking the play home with them,” where the debate and the dialogue rage from the page to the stage to the cages rattled over dinner tables.

“People are taking home a sense of ownership.”

And some would like to take home the playwright.

“I’m going to a seder,” says Lopez of accepting the invitation from one of his producers and her family for next month’s celebration of Passover. “If I wouldn’t, I’d feel guilty.”


Maybe he is Jewish after all.