«A curator should be introverted and extroverted»

Introducing Christina Meri

Meet Chris­ti­na Meri, Head of Coll­ec­tions at the Jewish Muse­um of Greece in Athens and, as of July 2022, the new Dr. Katia Guth-Drey­fus Cura­tor at the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land. Chris­ti­na Meri will rese­arch and pre­ser­ve the Basel coll­ec­tion. Her posi­ti­on is a bequest from the foun­ding direc­tor Dr. Katia Guth-Drey­fus. She spo­ke to Nao­mi Lubrich about Sephar­dic and Ash­ke­n­a­zi Juda­ism – and about what kind of per­son makes a good curator.

NL: Chris­ti­na, you were the cura­tor of the Jewish Muse­um of Greece for almost twen­ty years. What do we need to know about Greek Judaica?

CM: Greece is home to Roma­ni­ot and Sephar­dic Judai­ca. The Roma­ni­ot com­mu­ni­ties deve­lo­ped in the Byzan­ti­ne Empire from the ear­ly Jewish com­mu­ni­ties of the Hel­le­ni­stic and ear­ly Roman peri­ods. The Jews of Byzan­ti­um spo­ke Greek and a uni­que dialect, Yeva­nic. Until the 15th cen­tu­ry, they for­med the majo­ri­ty of the Jewish popu­la­ti­on in Greece. Then, after the arri­val of the Ladi­no-spea­king Sephards, Jews expel­led from the Ibe­ri­an Pen­in­su­la at the end of the 15th cen­tu­ry, the Roma­ni­ots were in the mino­ri­ty, while the Sephards took on a pro­mi­nent role in urban social and eco­no­mic life. Sephar­dic Juda­ism gai­ned influence, which we see in the design of cere­mo­ni­al objects. Some Judai­ca also dis­play inte­res­t­ing hybrid forms. Due to cen­tu­ries of Otto­man rule, which las­ted until the 20th cen­tu­ry, Otto­man forms and imagery found its way onto Greek-Jewish cere­mo­ni­al objects.

NL: Are the­re local idio­syn­cra­sies, tra­di­ti­ons, that don’t exist any­whe­re else?

CM: Yes! Jews in the Roma­ni­ot com­mu­ni­ties, espe­ci­al­ly in wes­tern Greece, deve­lo­ped objects, such as shad­day­ot and ale­fi­ot, which are spe­ci­fic to the regi­on. Schad­day­ot are orna­te sil­ver dedi­ca­ti­on plaques with engra­ved Hebrew inscrip­ti­ons that were con­se­cra­ted in the syn­ago­gue during holi­day ser­vices in memo­ry of living or decea­sed rela­ti­ves. After­wards, the voti­ve offe­rings were atta­ched to the Torah curtain or sewn in groups to tex­ti­le belts and hung on spe­cial occa­si­ons over the tik­kim, the woo­den Torah con­tai­ners. This uni­que Roma­ni­ot cus­tom has been docu­men­ted sin­ce the ear­ly 17th cen­tu­ry. The ale­fi­ot are deco­ra­ti­ve, pos­ter-sized paper child­bed amu­lets that were hung over the beds of a woman in child­birth and of her new­born son. The amu­lets were also inscri­bed with the Hebrew names of the child’s father and the son’s date of birth as well as bles­sings and pray­ers. The boys’ names were added after the cir­cumcis­i­on ritu­al. For many boys, the alef ser­ved as a cir­cumcis­i­on cer­ti­fi­ca­te for later life.

NL: Sephar­dic Juda­ism is very pre­sent in wes­tern Switz­er­land, but still under­re­pre­sen­ted in our coll­ec­tion. If you could wish for any object, which one would you want most?

CM: Ide­al­ly I would like us to have a per­fect­ly repre­sen­ta­ti­ve coll­ec­tion – and who knows? Per­haps one day we will. Per­so­nal­ly, I would be inte­res­ted in rese­ar­ching the Sephards who immi­gra­ted to wes­tern Switz­er­land from the Bal­kans, from Greece and Tur­key at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Bes­i­des the main Jewish com­mu­ni­ty in Lau­sanne, for ins­tance, the­re was a small Sephar­dic com­mu­ni­ty start­ing in about 1920, the «Min­yan Sephar­di,» foun­ded by David Abra­ham Ben­ja­min from Salo­ni­ki. My wish? A Torah curtain from its foun­ding period.

NL: When you begin in Basel, which Ash­ke­n­a­zi Judai­ca inte­rest you most?

CM: I have been working with Judai­ca from Greek Otto­man urban com­mu­ni­ties for many years now. So by con­trast, I’m inte­res­ted in the ear­ly cere­mo­ni­al and ever­y­day objects of Swiss rural Jews, such as the neck­band amu­lets (Hals­ge­zei­ge) and syn­ago­gue tex­ti­les made from the fabrics of fes­ti­ve women’s dres­ses. I’m exci­ted to dis­co­ver Swiss regio­nal distinc­tions and customs.

NL: My last ques­ti­on: What kind of a per­son makes a good curator?

CM: In my opi­ni­on, a muse­um cura­tor should be both intro­ver­ted and extro­ver­ted. Intro­ver­ted, so that she takes enough time and is suf­fi­ci­ent­ly pati­ent to let an object unfold and speak to her, to dis­co­ver its often hid­den facets. This includes a love of detail and of aspects that might be, at first sight, incon­spi­cuous. Often, it is the­se objects that tell us uni­que sto­ries. I am a visu­al per­son and an art-lover, two qua­li­ties which ope­ned the doors for me into the world of Judai­ca. And a cura­tor should also be extro­ver­ted: A muse­um is made by and for peo­p­le. Being sen­si­ti­ve to the audi­ence, to the visi­tors, and to the com­mu­ni­ty helps me com­mu­ni­ca­te the hid­den sto­ries to the public.

NL: Thank you, Chris­ti­na, and wel­co­me to Basel!



verfasst am 15.06.2022