Memories of Seymour Fromer, Magnes Founder

Posted by Administrator on Tuesday October 27 2009


We received word Monday morning that one of our founders, Seymour Fromer, passed away on Sunday. There’s an obituary here, and instead of mentioning all of his accolades, honors, and deeds, we, the Magnes staff, would like to share our personal memories of Seymour. For although he was a Jewish community leader, and a driving force behind so many programs in the Bay Area, he was also very human and approachable. We will miss him greatly.

Please comment and leave your own memories of Seymour.

Julie Franklin, Registrar:

In May 2005, I started working at the Magnes, and on my second day at the Museum, Seymour came over and introduced himself and gave me a great background and history of the Museum and its collection. It was incredible!  After he left, I asked Elayne Grossbard who he was, and she told me that Seymour was the founder of the Magnes.  How incredibly humble Seymour was, and always in a good humor with a wry gentle smile.

I loved his frequent visits, when he carried a box with something interesting inside; I knew I’d be in for a good story.  My heart is breaking because I will never again hear the spell casting words that began most of our conversations: “I have got something I think the Museum will be interested in… “ and, like a magician, he would pull something marvelous out of the box.

“Thank you Seymour for sharing your joy and passion for life with me.”

Lara Michels, Archivist and Librarian:

Even though I have been at the Magnes a relatively short period of time, I have been affected by the personality and passion of Seymour Fromer.  I am blessed with the job of caring for and providing access to the library and archival collections that Seymour and his colleagues built over the past half-century.  Though I saw him only occasionally during the past year, I have thought of him often and  am deeply aware of how his special influence, care, and deep commitment to preserving Jewish (hi)stories from all over the world shape the daily work that I do here at the Magnes.  I like to see the Magnes, with its beautiful jumble of archives, library, and museum materials as an embodiment of Seymour’s understanding that the documentation of the history and culture of any people or place or time requires a commitment to preserving a full range of cultural products. Seymour loved the Magnes collections in all their complexity and diversity and, even though we who are charged with caring for these collections sometimes manufacture divisions and distinctions necessary for professional practice, it delights me and inspires me to think of Seymour Fromer’s Magnes as a wondrous creation—a Jewish cabinet of curiosity really–that secretly and playfully eludes my attempts to divide and conquer.

Francesco Spagnolo, Director of Research and Collections:

I first came to the Magnes in the “old fashioned” way. Seymour Fromer brought me in – he captured me, literally: I had just moved to the Bay Area, and a mutual friend, Cantor Julie Blackman, had introduced me to him. Both he and Julie struck me as steeped in Old World courtesy, a character that reminds me of my grandparents’ generation, of those who rebuilt Europe after the great destruction, who founded the State of Israel, and who created a better world for their children; a kind of courtesy that I rarely see practiced anymore: the well-rehearsed routine that involves welcoming the newcomers, assessing their abilities, and promptly putting them to work. Seymour gave me the grand tour of the collections, which he knew like the back of his hand, and shared with me his love for Jewish music and his understanding for its relevance in telling the Jewish experience. A few months later I became the “music curator” at the Magnes, and from there its director of research and collections. I feel grateful to Seymour not only for having opened for me the doors of the Magnes and its infinite possibilities, but also for helping me in creating here a home away from home. His energy was that of the pioneers, of the dreamers, of those who build the world with their own hands. May his memory always be a blessing.

Groundbreaking for the Reutlinger Rare Book Room and Library

Perian Sully, Collection Information Manager:

I’ve always been amazed by Seymour’s mind. I started working at the Magnes in November, 2005, and quickly found what a rich resource the Magnes had in Seymour. Since it is my job to try and track down information about items in our collection, be it the provenance, the date, or the circumstances surrounding its acquisition, Seymour often became my only authoritative source. I could go to him with a question about one specific object and he would rattle off its history, the year it came in, and who gave it to us. His mind was extraordinary. I will greatly miss Seymour as a resource.

But maybe more importantly, he was always humble, and eager to be involved in our work. He often had opinions, good and bad, about how the Magnes was being run; it was clear that even through retirement, his heart was still here. I will also greatly miss Seymour as a supporter, a champion, and a partner.

Jacki Arase, Assistant Registrar:

I’m so saddened by this news.  Seymour was such a kind and gentle soul.  I always enjoyed talking with him and had great fun going over the new acquisition proposals he brought in.

I just saw him two weeks ago.  He was sitting in front of his house waiting for his daughter to pick him up.  They were going to Redwood City to see Rebecca in the hospital.  He, likes always, was very congenial.  Asked about the kids and how the Magnes was doing.  He, of course, mentioned he had a few more acquisition proposals to bring in.  He always had the welfare of the Magnes collection on his mind.  He never once mentioned his illness.

I knew in my heart that was probably the last time I would see him.  It is a beautiful memory I will cherish forever: him sitting in the sunlight on the large boulder in front of his house with the Magnes Museum to the right in back of him.

Elayne Grossbard, Judaica Curator:

Seymour both inspired and supported other collectors who shared, or learned to share, his passion for collecting. He remembered information about donors, like he did about everything else, in absolutely remarkable detail – I don’t think he forgot anything. It’s almost impossible for me to say anything about him without superlatives and that’s just in my little corner of things. I’m putting stories for which I have reasonably good notes but again, that’s an artificial limit. He used to come and sit in my office and show me pieces he had brought in and just schmooze about the art.

He never considered anything to be beneath his notice and recognized treasures even if the owners didn’t; everything was potentially a treasure: the Olat Shabbat prayer book which is one of the stars of the collection was brought in by an old lady who said she had a book that she didn’t want anymore.

Another similar story is the Lilienthal binder, another star of the collection: I have the notes to this August conversations on my desk:

He told me in great detail about the Lilienthal family (he first contacted them through the Gerstley family of San Francisco) they said they had letters of Rabbi Lilienthal and invited him to their family home in Marin. They told him they had a “cloth” and brought it out in department store box – they didn’t know anything about it and had no interest in it. Seymour was overjoyed – it is incredibly beautiful and he hadn’t known that such wealthy families had commissioned artists to make ritual objects such as Torah binders.

He knew an enormous amount about the material too – Shalom Sabar, a distinguished professor and a foremost authority on Jewish folk art in the Hebrew University Dept. of Jewish and Comparative Folklore / Dept. of Art History was a good friend – you can find his notes and comments throughout the ephemera collection – this is a catch-all term for a large and heterogeneous group, many of them pretty offbeat things – that Seymour had amassed. They were the first group of pieces I worked on here and I fell in love with them – just the fact that he saved all these little acorns is wonderful in itself.

When I went to visit him in August to ask him about the Torah pieces I was choosing for the Contemporary Jewish Museum show, I took notes for hours. That was when I found out he was sick although I didn’t realize how badly – I asked Rebecca if I could come and she said he would love it and he just talked and talked – another time I was absolutely awestruck by the detail he remembered. I asked about the material from Taadanah, Morocco (the only hits I got on Google were Magnes collection items). He said that his wife Rebecca, who spoke Ladino, was avidly interested in this community. Rebecca then pleaded that any exhibition of this material should emphasize the individual human stories of each piece – the people who gave them the pieces wanted the names of their families to be remembered.

Rebecca and Seymour Fromer

He also told a real “Indiana Jones” story about the Cochin ark and other Indian Jewish pieces:

He said, although he strongly emphasized that this information was off-the-record (!), that Rabbi Kimmel had gotten assistance, through a Bay Area contact, from high-level US State Department staff to bring the ark to the United States as a diplomatic pouch. The ark had been found disassembled with the sections wrapped in burlap and crated, and thanks to local inexpensive labor it was shipped out.

When the ark arrived at the museum it needed reassembly and restoration. Not surprisingly, Seymour immediately found an antique furniture restorer who specialized in wooden furniture, had recently emigrated from Prague, and was living nearby; he was eager to find work and charged very little. The ark was set up in the new Reutlinger gallery when it was finished.

Seymour added some background:

Rabbi Kimmel (Seymour had befriended him in Berkeley and helped him find teaching positions) served as rabbi in Cochin at the time when Jews were leaving for Israel. He told Seymour that there were remaining Jews there who were in need of help. Seymour helped to find sponsors for food and medicine for them. These Jews had treasured objects from their previously flourishing community that Seymour and Rabbi Kimmel were able to rescue.

Another example of his precise memory: He described Shnumnaglam, a 16th century center of the spice trade and home to a thriving Jewish community in great detail: he said it had a paradigmatic layout, with a “Jew Street”. There was a synagogue with a beautiful ark at the head of the street and little cabins (he was very specific about the use of this descriptive word) where the Jews lived.

The Liptovsky-Mikulas synagogue seating plan was another hidden treasure of the ephemera collection – it is an important historic document of the development of modern synagogue architecture in Eastern Europe. I spoke to him about it in 2007.

He was told by a local resident, family name Kertesz (yes, related to photographer Andre Kertesz) of the existence of relics of a Jewish community in Czechoslovakia, thriving before WW II but now destroyed. They would be willing to give these pieces to the Magnes if the Museum could arrange to collect them. Seymour funded a student, Jondavid Bachrach, to travel to Liptovsky Mikulasz; he was met there by one of the few remaining Jews, named Stein, and shown the synagogue – it had been made into a meeting-hall by this time. Bachrach sent back books, the seating plan, and a few ceremonial objects including a burial society (hevra kadisha) silver comb. Seymour sent Stein money to enable him to travel to Israel in appreciation of his help.

"Seymour", 2008. Raphael Shevelev. Berkeley, CA. photographic print on paper. 2008.22.1

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Filed under: Random Musings

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12 Comments for 'Memories of Seymour Fromer, Magnes Founder'

    October 27, 2009 | 9:52 am

    New blog post: Memories of Seymour Fromer, Magnes Founder

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    October 27, 2009 | 10:20 am

    Please leave your memories and tributes to Seymour here:

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    October 27, 2009 | 10:29 am

    @magnes’ memories of their founder. Add yours.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    October 27, 2009 | 10:35 am

    Please comment at the link with your memories and recollections of Seymour.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    October 27, 2009 | 10:51 am

    Memories about @magnes founder Seymour Fromer z”l can be added to this blog post:

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    James G. Leventhal
    October 27, 2009 | 3:01 pm

    To the Fromer family, to the Magnes Museum family and to the Rischins,

    It was with enormous anticipation that I was looking forward to visiting our friends of so many years this past October. The visit, in preparation for many months, meant renewing ties that went back forty years or more. We took it for granted that Seymour would once more play a prominent part in making the undertaking possible as he has in the past. We all remember that marvelous conference on Judah Magnes’ legacy when he and Moses brought together such a stellar group of scholars. It was always a joy on visiting the Bay Area to spend time at the museum under Seymour’s tutelage getting a rundown on the new acquisitions and talking shop.

    I personally owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Seymour for making the publication of “Dissenter in Zion” possible. Without his devotion to the project it just would not have been. Then there was the flow of information about Magnes memorabilia and archival materials which we both enjoyed.

    The worrisome news concerning Seymour’s health which Moses and James passed on to us last August that Seymour was critically ill was most distressing and now the very sad new that he has passed away leaves us bereft of a great figure in the cultural life of American Jews. May his memory be a blessing.

    Arthur Goren
    Tel Aviv, Israel

    Jeff Rosenberg
    October 28, 2009 | 2:30 pm

    I was a docent in the early ’90′s and have wonderful memories of the kindness and generous spirit that Seymour showered on all us volunteers. He was a true mench and will be sadly missed.

    October 29, 2009 | 12:04 pm

    Seymour Fromer, whose benign fingerprints were on every major Jewish institution in the San Francisco Bay Area, died on Monday. At the time of his funeral, I was having major surgery, and couldn’t attend. I once thought of Seymour as the wise, tolerant, supportive father I would have liked, and I shall miss him.

    Of my many rich memories there was one in particular that I treasure. One day when I was working in the library of the museum, a young Chinese exchange student at Berkeley came to the museum because of his curiosity about these people called the Jews. Dropping all his other concerns, Seymour escorted this young man around the museum and treated him with so much kindness and so much respect that I’m sure that the effect on that student was a mirror of what I experienced as an observer.

    Just days before his death, Seymour called me to thank me for a handmade Jewish New Year’s card which I had sent to him and Rebecca, and he began the conversation with a number of questions about my health. It’s only when I turned that inquiry around to ask about his health that I found out that he was under hospice care and that Rebecca was then at a rehabilitation center after a fall. When I tried to commiserate with him about the decline of our physical bodies, he said “But it’s important for our spirits to soar!” There are many memories of his kindnesses to me, especially around the publication of my book “Liberating the Ghosts” and the subsequent exhibition at the museum. But I still think that the episode with the Chinese exchange student said more about Seymour’s respect for humankind than anything else I can remember.

    On January 20, 2008, I photographed Seymour in the grounds of the Magnes Museum. It was during an intense conversation, and the setting reminded me of what an enormous contribution Seymour had made to our cultural lives. I added something to the photograph that wasn’t there: I gave him a “lapel pin” fashioned from the stylized “M” on the front gate of the museum. To me it represented a medal for exceptional service.


    Raphael Shevelev

    Bart Gershbein
    November 1, 2009 | 9:01 am

    Seymour Frommer was a warm, thoughtful,sincere dedicated educator who spent his life doing what he loved. He enjoyed,reveled in the richness of the Jewish culture and history. He is part of that history.
    The last time I saw Seymour was a few years back at an auction house with thousands of lots. He wanted to know if I saw the antique Hanukkah piece (which I totally missed). He described it and gave a short probable history. I knew Seymour well enough to say hello and remind him of my name. He was always gracious and welcoming. He reminded me of my NYC roots. He will be missed and remembered for his warmth and dedication to our past to preserve it for our future.

    November 2, 2009 | 6:08 am

    Memories of Seymour Fromer Magnes Founder | opensource

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    jessica kaz-hoffman
    November 3, 2009 | 11:57 pm

    I first met Seymour at a CAJM conference in Chicago in 1989. I was just exploring jewish museum work as a possible profession and he encouraged me to jump in and to come intern at the magnes museum. Little did I know what mazel I had that day. I did follow him to the Magnes and was blessed to have worked with him, Ruth Eiss, Marney Welch and many others on staff at the Magnes. I was just 22 years old and far from home and they all welcomed me with open arms into the heart and soul of the Magnes, in the garden, int eh exhibits and into the community. He was generous, funny, brilliant and a trailblazer in the Jewish museum world. Thanks to Seymour I have worked for over 20 years in the field of Jewish museums. He was a super mensch and he will be missed by all who were blessed to spend time with him.

    Jessica Kaz-Hoffman
    Arts and Education Consultant

    judy musante
    November 10, 2009 | 1:45 pm

    I was a visitor to the Museum from time to time. sometimes i walked, sometimes i biked there..he greeted me like a cherished friend. once when he saw me overwhelmed by a holocaust exhbiit and all the horrible losses, he comforted me telling me that Judaism remains alive. He always asked me about my family and my interests. He was a great mentor, and a kind and wonderful mensh. I perceive him as a lamid vovnik, a tsadik who inspired the good in us.

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