Magnes Museum on Russell Street
Magnes Museum on Russell Street

Seymour Fromer, who founded the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley in the early 1960s, died early Sunday after a short illness.

Fromer, 87, and his wife Rebecca started the museum in response to what they saw as California’s lack of knowledge of its Jewish heritage. Starting with a few objects and a display case in the Oakland Museum, the Magnes grew to become the country’s third largest Jewish museum. Its influence is international in scope, however, as scholars, artists, musicians, and filmmakers from around the world use its collections.

The beginnings of the museum were almost accidental. In 1960, Fromer, then director of the Jewish Education Council of Alameda and Contra Costa County, was browsing at the old Holmes Bookstore in Oakland. (He loved to browse at antique stores, garage sales and other places where old and historic material might be lurking.) Fromer found an 1894 Oakland high school year book with the picture of Judah Magnes, an Oakland native who became the first ordained rabbi from California. (He served as a respected rabbi in New York and founded Hebrew University in Israel). Fromer became very curious about Magnes and soon saw that the West’s Jewish history and traditions were richer than he had known.

Rebecca and Seymour Fromer

After meeting Magnes’ widow in Israel, Seymour and Rebecca Fromer decided to start a museum. It opened its doors in 1962 and moved to its current site on Russell Street in Berkeley in 1966. Its Western Jewish History Center houses letters, diaries, business documents and photographs documenting the Jewish contribution to the development of the West. It has a stellar collection of Jewish ritual objects, as well as rare books, prints, and paintings. In the past year the Magnes has digitized much of its collection, making it widely available to people around the world.

The Magnes also sent emissaries to bring back material from dying Jewish communities around the word, including India, Morocco, and Iran. It also published a number of catalogues of its collections and exhibits as well as book documenting Jewish life in the Bay Area.

Many events that are now a familiar fabric of Bay Area life got their start at the Magnes, and are a testament to the way Fromer served as a mentor to people with a broad range of interests. The Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Music Festival began there. In 1968, Fromer invited the artist David Moss to serve as an artist-in-residence. Moss specialized in making hand-painted kettubott, the marriage contract that must be signed between husbands and wives. Moss and the Magnes Museum revived the popularity of the kettubot.

Even after Fromer retired as the director of the Magnes, he continued to look for objects for the museum’s collections. Recently, he assisted Fred Rosenbaum, a historian and the director of Lehrhaus Judaica, and the Magnes Museum in creating an exhibit on on how Fillmore Street in San Francisco became a Jewish neighborhood after the 1906 earthquake and fire. It is on view at the Jazz Heritage Center. Before the exhibit opened, Fromer could be seen at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair looking in bin after bin for old photographs of the neighborhood.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...