Solomon “Momy” Levy, who served as Gibraltar’s mayor for one year beginning August 1, 2008, passed away last Thursday at St. Bernard’s Hospital in Gibraltar at the age of 80. Momy was my fairy godfather, the man who would help launch my journalism career, and I never imagined he’d be wearing a three-piece suit, Panama hat, and bow tie. He always did.
Momy, Gibraltar’s first civic mayor (and the first Jewish person to hold the title), impacted interfaith and intercultural unity in ways that will reverberate in Gibraltar and around Europe for years to come. He also held the position of Justice of the Peace on the Rock, and served the Gibraltar Defense Force for 18 years as unit’s first Jewish soldier. He was also a beloved member of the Jewish community, holding the post of chairman of the Jewish Community Association. But it was never his decorated resume that impressed me. In my memory, Momy sits in a perfectly tailored pinstriped suit, wearing a smile that could illuminate the whole of Gibraltar, the rock that Jews called home for centuries.
I first met Momy on a sticky July afternoon in Gibraltar in 2010, when the levante, the mist that lingers between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rock of Gibraltar, makes it difficult to get out of bed. My father and I were walking down Main Street, taking in the cobblestone streets lined with antique stores and pubs where my grandparents walked not too long ago. In the distance, across from the Governor’s Residence, we saw a man, strolling aristocratically, in a pastel three-piece suit, a bow tie, a Panama hat, and a gold chain hanging between his pocket and belt loop. He and my father embraced like old friends.
I didn’t yet know he was Gibraltarian political royalty. When we met he was just an eccentric, funny, generous, and extremely sharp man. My father introduced me to Momy as an old friend. Momy invited us to his office, just off of Main Street, where he had set up shop for his estate business, which he started in 1960.
Stepping into his office felt like stepping into his mind. The walls were decorated with historical artifacts, toys, and pictures. The most prominent photo was one taken in 2008 of Momy and local religious leaders with the caption, “An example to the world.” I was tickled by his collection of caricatures and model soldiers, and immediately noticed the three flags prominently perched behind his desk: the Gibraltarian flag, the British flag, and the Israeli flag.
Born in Gibraltar in 1936, Momy grew up during the war. As it was a British air base, Gibraltar’s citizens were evacuated early on during WWII. Momy’s family, along with the entire Gibraltarian population, was evacuated first to Casablanca. Then, when the Nazis occupied France, they were moved to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where they lived for five years. As mayor of Gibraltar, one of Momy’s proudest moments was presiding over the ceremony that bound Madeira and Gibraltar as sister cities.
Unlike the evacuations taking place in the remainder of Europe, Gibraltar’s Jewish population was not evacuated alone—but alongside Christian friends and neighbors. The threat posed to all citizens of the Rock due to the war was enough to evacuate the entire population, not just the Jews. According to Joshua Lhote, one of the founders of Understanding Gibraltar, a think tank dedicated to studying multiculturalism, solidarity was and continues to be central to this small, resilient community. “There is no strong [political] majority in Gibraltar,” he said. “We’re all Gibraltarian. What’s impressive is that unity”—a unity that Momy exemplified. (Nearly the entire country voted to remain in the Eurozone during June’s Brexit vote.)
Momy loved being Jewish, Gibraltarian, and English. He could not fathom Gibraltar becoming Spanish—something which the Spanish government and population rallies for every now and again—and was known to say in his singsong voice, “British we are, British we’ll stay, but Spanish we’ll speak all day!” (Although the official language of Gibraltar is English, llanitos, a word for Gibraltarian natives, speak in a way that interweaves British English and Andalucian Spanish together.)
Gibraltar has always had a unique relationship with its Jews. After the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that ended the War of Spanish Succession in which Spain ceded Gibraltar to the British, Jews and Moors were not permitted to own property. The few Jews who arrived in Gibraltar beforehand, didn’t flee from the newly minted colony—they instead struck an unofficial deal in which they could stay but not own land. This restriction too soon melted away. In the late 1700s, the Governor decided that “[the Jews] aren’t so bad, after all. Let’s allow them to buy property.” On the first plot they bought, Momy explained in a 2009 interview with The Jerusalem Post, they built a synagogue. It was the first new synagogue to be built on the Iberian Peninsula since the Spanish Inquisition.
Years ago, when I was sitting in his office, an essential museum to this history, he asked me about what I was studying in university and what I wanted to pursue upon graduation: journalism, I told him unequivocally. “Well, you must work in Gibraltar,” he replied. Within 24 hours, I had a summer internship, which Momy helped me secure. From then on, every time I saw him he would always ask about my progress. He’d share his ideas about writing, religion, Gibraltar, and the importance of coexistence. Momy was a strong advocate of interfaith and intercultural unity.
“Where in the world do you find a Catholic Prime Minister, a Hindu Speaker of Parliament, and a Jewish Mayor?” Momy once said in an interview with GBC News. “That typifies Gibraltar all the way.”
During a Thursday tribute in Parliament, Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said, “His work in trying to bring religions together did not start when he was mayor, but he used his time when he was mayor to further that cause.”
Lhote, of Understanding Gibraltar, said that a meeting the think tank held last Monday about multiculturalism on the Rock was most likely Momy’s last. How fitting, too, that it was for a cause in which Momy adamantly believed. “Momy was philosophically with us,” Lhote said, and was supportive of the endeavor. “His personal identity as a Gibraltarian or a Jew wasn’t threatened by being friends with non-Jews or non-Gibraltarians. He represented the mobility of human experience… Momy believed that if we strive to get to know everyone, there’s nothing we can’t solve.”
The last time I saw the Mayor of Gibraltar was at my cousin’s wedding in Manchester earlier this year. He was dressed well as ever, wearing a smart pinstriped suit, an infectious smile, and a good spirit. And that’s forever how I’ll remember him.
He is survived by his wife, Sara, four children, 24 grandchildren, and one great grandson.
Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.