Rebecca Fromer, who passed away Sunday. Photo: Erin Vang

Rebecca Camhi Fromer, a poet, playwright, historian, and co-founder of the Judah L. Magnes Museum of Berkeley, died in San Francisco on January 1 with her family by her side. She was 84.

Fromer and her husband, Seymour, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 87, started the Magnes Museum in 1960 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 in Seymour Fromer’s office at the Bureau for Jewish Education in Oakland, the Magnes grew to become the country’s third largest Jewish museum with more than 10,000 objects ranging from paintings, photographs, rare books, archival material, and Judaica.

Situated in a historic home on Russell Street for more than 40 years, the Magnes Museum merged with UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library in July 2010. Now renamed the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, it is scheduled to open in a remodeled building at 2121 Allston Way on January 22.

Fromer wrote, or co-wrote, numerous nonfiction books, including The House by the Sea: A Portrait of the Holocaust in GreeceThe Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando, Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz, and Bridge of Sorrow, Bridge of Hope. Her poetry and prose were collected in Out of Silence, Into Being and One Voice, Many Echos.

Fromer, a long-time Berkeley resident, is survived by her daughter, Mira Z. Amiras, and grandchildren Michael Zussman and Rayna Savrosa.

Memorial services will be held on Tuesday, January 3, 2012, at 12:30 pm at Chabad House Berkeley, 2730 Telegraph Avenue, with a private burial and graveside service immediately following. Donations may be made to the Fromer Fund of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Fred Rosenbaum, a historian and longtime friend of both of the Fromers, wrote the following eulogy of Rebecca:

With the passing of Rebecca Fromer we lose the co-founder of the Magnes Museum, and a gifted author of exceptional breadth: a poet and playwright, a biographer and historian, a novelist and short story writer. Rebecca leaves us with a large body of work that is inspired and imaginative. Her words are at once elegant and searing.

Being in her home countless times, I was also struck by her sense of style, and often thought she could have been a designer. The gorgeous garden she tended, the exquisite paintings and sculpture she arranged, and the flair she had for fabric and jewelry all spoke of a woman who was not only beautiful herself, but who loved beauty in all its forms. Seymour absolutely adored her and we could all see why.

And yet what marked Rebecca most of all was her honesty — often brutal honesty. She embodied the ’60s slogan of speaking truth to power. When she taught English in a tough, racially mixed high school in Oakland, she bluntly let the administrators know that their policies were hurting, not helping, the students’ education.

When she developed the Magnes Museum with Seymour, she let Jewish communal professionals, and even lay leaders, know when they were lagging in their support. When she wrote about the Holocaust, her fiery condemnation included not only the perpetrators, but also those who had remained silent in the face of genocide — even Jews who refused to speak out.

Her audacious candor frequently made people uncomfortable, as the truth often does. She was among the first to tell smug white liberals that they weren’t really accepting of blacks socially. She told the self-satisfied children of East European Jewish immigrants that their heritage was no more distinguished than the Sephardim who had actually preceded them in America. And she showed a lot of domineering men how strong a woman could be.

I’d like to close with a line that she wrote. It comes near the very end of her final book, One Voice, Many Echoes, where she offers the reader a series of Pensées, a French literary form consisting of brief thoughts conveying the insights into the world and human nature that the author has learned throughout life. One of these captured for me the essence of Rebecca Fromer: “Half truths are complete lies.”

Magnes collections get new downtown Berkeley home [10.13.10]
Seymour Fromer, founder of Magnes Museum, dies [10.26.09]

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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...