eulogy for seymour fromer
Congregation Beth El, Berkeley, California
October 27, 2009
Seymour’s accomplishments in creating from scratch the third largest Jewish museum in North America are well known and detailed in today’s obituaries. So rather than dwell on that, I want to touch on the way he was a cultural catalyst, influencing the lives of others and enriching the whole community in the process.
Especially in the 1970s and 80s, he took under his wing many young Jewish scholars and artists. He provided studio and exhibition space for David Moss who went on to ignite a worldwide revival of illuminated Ketubot. He propelled Deborah Kaufman who founded the first Jewish Film Festival in the country. He provided the resources for Aaron Lansky to start the National Yiddish Book Center. He gave me the impetus to develop Lehrhaus.
He did all of this and directed the Museum with tremendous resourcefulness and no small amount of self-sacrifice. Seymour worked for a pitifully low wage but never complained about that or the fifteen-year-old Chevy Impala he drove—the only car I’d ever known to have termites—or the second-hand clothing he wore. He wasn’t what you’d call a smooth operator. He succeeded brilliantly, neither with glamour nor glibness, but rather with skill, innovation, and risk-taking.
You know, until 1984, Seymour ran the Museum on his lunch hour. His main job was Executive Director of the Jewish Education Council (forerunner of today’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning) which he founded and ran for twenty-five years, and that, too, required astuteness and dedication. But from 11:30-2:30—it was a long lunch hour—and Sundays and many evenings, he presided over his beloved museum.
As soon as he walked in, people descended upon him, not only the talented staff and dedicated volunteers, but also those aspiring to be in Seymour’s orbit. They were usually young folks, long on dreams and invariably short on money. I watched him cultivate, nurture, and encourage those developing minds.
He seemed to devote as much attention to those down on their luck as to those blessed with success. Anxious people asked him when they might hear about a grant proposal, what the odds were of publishing an article or a poem, and even the chances of landing a job as a Hebrew school teacher. His patience, his concern were inexhaustible as he worked around the clock to jump-start countless careers.
I can see him now, soothing and calming someone worried about his or her prospects. He’d put his hand up to eye-level, as if he could gaze into the future, and confidently say: “Something will emerge.”
It was my phenomenal good fortune and the privilege of my life to be one of Seymour’s proteges. He influenced me more than did any other person—as a writer, teacher, and institution builder.
But Seymour was more than my mentor—he was my best friend. Despite the difference in age, he was the person I turned to first, not only in times of advances and setbacks in my professional life, but also during the ups and downs of my personal life.
He was the most non-judgmental person I’ve ever met, compassionate and empathetic to the core. Even more remarkable was his optimism, toward individuals and the world as a whole. Yet it was never just a rose-colored view. It was always help that he provided along with hope, wisdom that he imparted along with good wishes. He was not only a source of inspiration, but also a wellspring of guidance.
Throughout my entire adult life I’ve needed that boost. Thinking back on my four decades with Seymour, he made it so much about me, so little about him. He sometimes spoke about a thorny issue at the Museum, but his own needs and feelings rarely surfaced. And he was modest to a fault, often self-effacing. Our buddy Harold and I, as dyed-in-the-wool baby boomers, and very familiar with the narcissism of our generation, would often remark to one another in awe: The guy has no ego.
Seymour received much emotional sustenance from his family: his wife Rebecca, whom he absolutely adored—the very last of the dozens of publications he arranged was an elegant two-volume collection of her poetry and prose—and his daughter, Mira, and grandchildren, Michael and Rayna, all of whom he was very proud. But he also drew upon his own inner resources: his insatiable curiosity, his deep insights, and his unquenchable enthusiasm. Those traits kept him going, as they buoyed everyone around him.
I was a beneficiary of that exuberance all the way to last week, the final days of his life, when, with the excitement of a child, he called me to talk about a potential museum exhibit to be cosponsored by Lehrhaus and the Magnes next year. “How are you feeling?” I asked worriedly. “Fair,” he replied, For Seymour to describe himself that way was code for “horrible,” but all he wanted to discuss was a local Jewish artist of the 1930s. I told him we would curate the exhibit together. For once, I was trying to give him a lift.
So now this tower of strength for me is gone. I feel that a light has gone out in my life, that I have lost a spirit so positive, so pure, and so good that it can never be replaced.
And then I think again of Seymour, who would raise me up by saying: “Something will emerge.”