Rebecca Camhi Fromer, who co-founded the Judah L. Magnes Museum with her husband, died Jan. 1 in San Francisco from complications due to a stroke. The longtime Berkeley resident was 84.
A teacher, poet, playwright and art lover, she could always be counted on to tell the truth as she saw it, and expected nothing less from those around her.
“She was a unique character,” said Fred Rosenbaum, a close friend and the founding director of Lehrhaus Judaica. “Rebecca was someone very strong in her opinions, and not shy about expressing them; someone who epitomized the expression of ‘speaking truth to power.’ ”
Fromer, together with her husband, Seymour Fromer, who died in 2009, launched the Magnes in 1962. The two made a striking pair: he the courtly public face of the museum, she the woman whose love of beauty fueled the couple’s passion for collecting Judaica.
That passion found its counterpoint in Fromer’s career as an English teacher at Castlemont High School, located in a tough Oakland neighborhood. She wrote about her experiences in her 2007 book, “One Voice, Many Echoes.”
“She would really stick it to the white liberals in the Oakland hills,” Rosenbaum remembered. “These were people she socialized with. She would say to them they were not truly open to mixing with African Americans socially. This was during the civil rights movement but before a lot of the social mixing.”
Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, Fromer was deeply proud of her Sephardic background. She spoke Ladino and knew Sephardic culture. She met her husband of more than 50 years when he was working in Jewish education in Los Angeles. In 1953, the couple moved to Oakland.
They founded the Magnes Museum in a $75-a-month loft over Oakland’s Parkway Theater. Initially, the Magnes specialized in ceremonial art, posters and paintings of Jewish themes. The couple expanded the collection by personally rescuing artifacts from endangered Jewish communities in places such as Czechoslovakia, Morocco, Egypt and India. All told, they collected some 11,000 pieces of Judaica and fine arts, 10,000 rare and other Jewish-themed books, along with papers, photos and other documents. Much of that material was housed in the Magnes’ Western Jewish History Center, which they helped establish in 1967. That same year, the Magnes moved to an elegant mansion at 2911 Russell St.
The Fromers lived right next door.
“In the early years they worked very closely as a team,” recalled Harold Lindenthal, a longtime friend. “As the years went by, Seymour was the director, but when big decisions had to be made, he would run them by Rebecca.”
Fromer earned a master’s degree from San Francisco State University, writing her thesis on the Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer. During and after her teaching years, she turned to writing as her primary creative outlet, including Holocaust histories and biographies, numerous poems and stories. When the work day was done, Fromer kept up her garden, which was one of her passions. Entertaining was another.
“Rebecca was a bit of a salon lady,” Rosenbaum said. “She liked to have people over to that beautiful home, people who were artists, musicians and storytellers. That home was a vibrant center, bubbling with life and ideas.”
Added Lindenthal, “She had an uncanny eye for beauty. It could manifest in multiple ways: art, literature, music and interior design.”
Though growing more infirm in her last years, Fromer never lost her sharp wit, and was scheduled to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Magnes in downtown Berkeley later this month.
Rebecca Camhi Fromer is survived by her daughter, Mira Amiras, and two grandchildren. Donations may be made to the Fromer Fund through the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.