Friday, October 30, 2009

Obituary: Seymour Fromer, Co-Founder of Magnes Museum

Seymour Fromer, Co-Founder of Magnes Museum, Dies in Berkeley at Age 87

I am sad to report the passing of Seymour Fromer, beloved teacher and friend to generations. Seymour will be remembered for his kindness and achievements, especially the founding (with Ruth Camhi Fromer) and development of Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California.

Seymour died in his home in Berkeley, California, on October 25 after a long illness. He was 87. A memorial service was held Tuesday, October 27, at Congregation Beth El, in Berkeley.

Colleagues and friends can share their memories of Seymour on an Opensource blog at here.

Seymour knew - and in almost every case helped – most of people active in the Jewish Museum world, including many of the younger generation, some of whom got there start (and their enthusiasm) under his tutelage.

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Seymour graduated from Stuyvesant High School, earned a B.A. from Brooklyn College, and did graduate work at Teachers College Columbia University. He worked in the Jewish communities of Essex County , New Jersey and Los Angeles where, in 1955, in the Hollywood Bowl he presented the opera David, composed by Darius Milhaud who conducted the orchestra. In Los Angeles, Seymour met and married his wife of more than fifty years, the poet and author Rebecca Camhi.

In the late 1950s, the Fromers came to Oakland, California, and established the Jewish Education Council (the forerunner of today’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning), remaining in that post for a quarter century.
Then in 1962, the Fromers founded the Magnes Museum, first in modest quarters over the Parkway movie theater in Oakland and a few years later in the turn-of-the-century Burke mansion at 2911 Russell Street in Berkeley, its headquarters to this day.

Eventually, through years of energetic and creative collecting, the Magnes grew to be the third largest repository of Judaica in the United States. The collections were a destination for researchers, but the conservation and exhibition facilities of the museums lagged behind its holdings. The dream was to develop and move to a new facility to better protect and present the now invaluable collection which was increasingly supplemented from the 1970s on with the Fromer’s support for new Jewish art by a younger generation.

The story of the founding and early years of the museum is vividly told by Ruth Camhi Fromer in
The Creation of the Magnes Museum (Written in 1987 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Judah L. Magnes Museum)”

Before Seymour’s "retirement" in 1998 (my recollection is he was forced out, in a familiar case of “founding director syndrome”) the Magnes grew to become the third largest Jewish museum in North America, specializing in Judaica from North Africa and India, and in ceremonial art and posters and paintings of Jewish interest.

The Fromers kept expanding the collection by rescuing artifacts from endangered Jewish communities around the world. A planned, expensive - but ultimately failed - merger with the Jewish Museum San Francisco temporarily closed the Magnes. Seymour watched – and commented – from the sidelines as this work of a lifetime almost met an ignominious end. Fortunately, the Magnes was able to reinvent itself, with Seymour once more appreciated and involved. In recent years he continued to work with the Magnes staff to make sure his legacy – and the history of many objects he collected – is preserved. The Magnus Museum is scheduled to move into its new downtown home in 2011.

In 1967, Seymour established the Western Jewish History Center at the Magnes, the first regional Jewish history center in the U.S. and the most comprehensive. He also created the Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks, which restored and to this day maintains seven Jewish Gold Rush cemeteries in the California Mother Lode. The Center served as a model for similar efforts such as the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.

Especially in the 1970s and 80s, Seymour nurtured many young Jewish scholars and artists and was a key catalyst in the Jewish cultural renaissance in the Bay Area. He provided the impetus for such organizations as Lehrhaus Judaica, the Jewish Film Festival, and the National Yiddish Book Center.

Seymour Fromer is survived by his wife, Rebecca Camhi Fromer; their daughter, Mira Z. Amiras, Professor of Comparative Religion at San Jose State University; and grandchildren attorney Michael Zussman and Rayna Leonora Savrosa, a graduate student in the Parsons School of Design, both of Brooklyn, New York

The family requests that any donations in Seymour Fromer’s memory be sent to the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94705.

My comments are adapted from the obituary posted by the Magnes Museum: Magnes Founder, Seymour Fromer, Dies


loveitallabove said...

thank you SO much for this lovely overview and message! Seymour was dear friend and mentor to so many.

Leo Michel said...

To Rebecca Camhi Fromer,

Please accept my condolences. Seymour's love for art and history were contagious. We all benefited from his knowledge and expertise in many areas of culture.
May his memory be a blessing!
December 22, 2009