eulogy for seymour fromer
1922 – 2009
Congregation Beth El, Berkeley, California
October 27, 2009
One day, some forty years ago, I was sitting in the library of the Magnes Museum. A man came over, introduced himself and engaged me in conversation. He asked about me; where I was from, what I was doing, etc.
I told him that I had recently graduated from college and taught in public school for awhile in order to get out of the Vietnam War, that my father was an Orthodox rabbi from Poland; a Talmud Chochom who lost his family in the Holocaust, and that my mother was from Jerusalem and came from a rabbinic lineage.
The man listened carefully to my story.
He listened in a way that very few had listened to me before.
That man was Seymour Fromer.
And that man knew that I was a little lost in the world.
Seymour told me that the museum was creating a new exhibit called “Collector’s Choice”, made up of art work lent by various families in the Bay Area.
Toward the end of the conversation Seymour uttered magic words: “Would you like to help out at the museum?”
It was like a second bar mitzvah for me.
I was a man.
Actually, I was a man with a van, going to the homes of Jewish families in Pacific Heights.
“Harold Lindenthal, Magnes Museum. I’m here to pick up your Modigliani.”
I continued to work at the Magnes. I had various duties. I was the director of this and the director of that. Seymour sometimes referred to me affectionately as “Professor.” I suspect that others held that title as well. Seymour was long on titles and short on cash.
It was a joy to work at the Magnes with Seymour.
One day the second set of magic words were uttered: “Why don’t you have dinner with Rebecca and me?”
Those dinners evolved into four or five nights a week in some combination of Seymour, Rebecca, Fred Rosenbaum and me. Always interesting conversation. Laughter. Utter joy.
Seymour’s Hebrew name is Simcha. Simcha, a happy occasion. Joyous. The most mundane events were transformed into a joyous occasion in Seymour’s presence. To be with Seymour was always interesting and fun.
Seymour was an adult who never lost his childlike enthusiasm for life. Even last month, when I spent a week with him, he was filled with laughter, enthusiasm for life and interest in many things.
My parents were immigrants to the U.S., impacted severely by the Holocaust, English was not a native language, and they were not business people. My father was a Rav and scholar.
Seymour taught me skills that were not a part of my parents’ experience.
Seymour was indispensible in teaching me how to function in the modern world.
I accompanied Seymour to the Bay Area auction houses, where he was a well known personality.
I went treasure hunting with him at estate sales.
Seymour taught me how to find a house and flip it for a profit! This was something completely alien from my childhood experience.
And then there was fundraising.
In my father’s shul, between mincha and maariv, the shammes would approach the men in the minyan shaking the pushke and people would stick some money in.
Seymour taught me the business of fundraising and not too long after I was running the local federation campaigns.
Seymour opened new horizons for me – in business, in ways of being deeply Jewish, in being American, in being happy and free.
There is a rabbinic legend that when you die, God does not ask why you were not Abraham or Isaac, Sarah or Rebecca, but rather, “Why were you not you?” “Why were you not yourself?”
I was one of the many people that Seymour took under his wing and helped to become themselves.
Jon David Bachrach’s background was different than mine. His parents were American born and his home was more secular. JD developed a great interest in Judaism and Zionism. With Seymour’s encouragement, he went to Israel, joined the Israeli Army and subsequently studied in a yeshiva there. JD lives as an Orthodox Jew, married with children, and is a successful lawyer practicing in New York.
Bill Chayes, encouraged by Seymour, developed his genius for converting thought into image and became an award winning filmmaker.
Mira, beloved daughter of Seymour and Rebecca, was surrounded by a family rich in Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition, where intellectual activity was honored and encouraged. Mira, after having received a PhD from UC Berkeley, is now a tenured professor of Comparative Religious Studies at San Jose State University. And on a more personal note, it has been heartwarming to witness the exquisite, loving care that Mira has given to her mother and father.
Seymour was one of the greatest Jewish communal workers.
He and his beloved Rebecca founded the Magnes Museum, one of the largest collections of Judaica in the world.
He guided Fred in the creation of Lehrhaus Judaica which is now the largest school for adult Jewish studies on the West Coast.
Aron Lansky witnessed Yiddish books being put out on the curb for garbage. Seymour offered him guidance and space at the museum which eventually evolved into the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA and a MacArthur “Genius Award” for Lansky.
Hundreds of communities nationwide have annual Jewish Film Festivals modeled after the first one, created by Deborah Kaufman and incubated at the Magnes with Seymour’s encouragement and guidance.
Seymour’s beloved wife Rebecca told me a story that years ago; Seymour was setting out to drive to a Jewish educator’s conference in Arizona. He was already in the car and Rebecca shouted, “Seymour, you forgot your money!” to which he replied, “Anyone can do it with money!” and drove off.
Seymour understood the importance of money. He knew that while it was necessary, it was not sufficient. One needed passion as well.
Seymour had enormous passion to rescue the remnants of the lost Jewish communities worldwide. Shayreet Yisroel.
Under Seymour’s direction, seven Jewish cemeteries from the Gold Rush era were preserved.
The Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, from the Jewish community of Cochin India was brought to the Magnes.
Artifacts from Egypt and other countries of North Africa, Spain and Germany and from the communities decimated by the Holocaust found a home at the Magnes.
Seymour, the consummate collector has now been collected.
Perhaps when it is my turn, Seymour will come over, introduce himself like he did forty years ago, and we can continue the complete and utter joy – the simcha – of being together.