Magnes Museum

Visitors from the East Bay Skill Center before the Magnes Museum had a permanent home (early 1960s).

The Magnes Museum's original home in Berkeley, California, acquired in 1968.
There Was No Grand Plan

And 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.

New 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.

I 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.

Before 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.

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