«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