from the East Bay Skill Center before the Magnes Museum
had a permanent home (early 1960s).
Magnes Museum's original home in Berkeley, California, acquired
in 1968. |
Was No Grand Plan
so, the museum began with a wealth of mind. Seymour and
I had a few things, and these were both the nucleus and
the base from which we started. In those days, I was not
only a teacher of English on the secondary level, but also
a Sunday school teacher, and Seymour, the director of the
Jewish Education Council. You must understand ambition played
no role in this; there was no grand plan, no thought of
creating an institution, what there was is the desire to
share, to make real through something that could be seen
and touched, a part of the collective identity we had no
other way of knowing. So, there was that, and a lot of hard
work on the one side, and on the other side, there was the
hunger of the young to learn something substantive, something
that made them a good deal more than the captives of boredom.
Immediacy, relevancy created the dynamic to shuttle between
the present and the past with alive Intelligence, and that's
the way it was until I, who am not a collector, and Seymour,
who is, worked together to supplant our modest collection.
questions on everyone's part generated the sparks of enthusiasm;
they brought joy and spontaneity into discovery, and they
embellished the art of teaching. We were now actively engaged
in acquiring new hobbies and new information in re-constituting
the larger aspects of our lives, and we were infusing others
by virtue of the quality of our inquiries and the nature
of our discoveries. For those who were not there, it only
remains to say that the sustained intelligence of passion
that characterized these early efforts may be underscored,
but they never can be exaggerated.
do not speak of a linear process; the simultaneity of events,
the cross-fertilization of ideas, and the receptivity to
pool treasured items, which conveyed little in isolation
and much within the mosaic of combined resources, elicited
an enlightened view untarnished by coercion or self-interest.
We were beginning to gather things about the American experience,
particularly in the West, along with items from the European
past. Everything was precious. If it was Jewish, it mattered.
The holocaust was behind us; there could be no irrelevancy
to our efforts after that. Soon, Seymour and I geared our
"vacations" to countries where vestiges of Jewish
life yet remained. We encountered suspicion and danger,
and saw scores of abandoned synagogues, impoverished, horribly-vulnerable
segments of the frightened, the old, the sick and the orphaned,
and stores of rotting libraries; in fact, we saw the desperate
situation of the poor and the few rich who were trapped
by circumstance and whose lives were not only in total disarray,
but also under continual threat. Some, only too aware of
their predicament gave us an item or two that something
of themselves might survive; where "recompense"
entered -- and it did, Sephardic style -- the tact of the
Orient, fragile as gossamer, entered, too, for delicacy
is an art upon which entire worlds of consciousness subsist,
and many an "artifact" in the museum has its antecedents
in just such roots.
long, others offered to plan their vacations on the basis
of what they could do where, whom they could see or help,
what they could bring, and what they could hope to recover
or salvage. In this way, we extended our reach and forged
meaningful, if not lasting relationships. We encouraged
some and helped others, and we never failed to diminish
the distances that separated us all. It seems to me that
we redeemed ourselves, even as we redeemed the past and
those trapped in a tragic limbo, but none of us, you understand,
expressed it so.