Magnes Museum, Judah L.

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MAGNES MUSEUM, JUDAH L. Located in Berkeley, in a century-old mansion about a mile from the University of California, the Magnes Museum contains the third largest collection of Judaica in the United States. The Museum was founded in 1962 in Oakland by the New York-born Jewish educator Seymour Fromer, with editor and writer Rebecca Camhi Fromer as co-founder, and moved to its current location four years later. It is named in honor of Judah L. Magnes, who was born in San Francisco in 1877 and raised in Oakland, the first native Californian to receive rabbinical ordination. Magnes was the founder and first president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his friend and colleague Martin Buber became honorary chair of the museum soon after its inception.

During Seymour Fromer's 36-year tenure as museum director, and following his retirement in 1998, the museum has collected, preserved, and made available artistic, historical, and literary material reflecting Jewish life and culture throughout history. In 1968, the Siegfried Strauss Collection was acquired as the core of the museum's ceremonial art holdings, which have expanded to include one of the world's largest collections of Hanukah menorahs and Torah binders, costumes, and other textiles. The museum also rescued artifacts from endangered Jewish communities such as Czechoslovakia, Morocco, Egypt, and India.

Over the decades the museum has acquired thousands of prints, drawings, portfolios, and posters of Jewish interest including works by Hermann Struck, Ben Shahn, and Marc Chagall. It holds the works of painters such as Max Liebermann, Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, Toby Rosenthal, Lazar Krestin, Lesser Ury, Muriel Minkowski, Isadore Kaufman, and Raphael Soyer; and sculptors such as Elbert Weinberg and Harold Parris. In 1974, the museum won accreditation by the American Association of Museums, the first U.S. Jewish museum to receive such recognition, and three years later was a founding member of the Council of American Jewish Museums.

The museum is also a repository for historical documents of Jews in the American West. Its Western Jewish History Center, initiated in 1967 and directed for more than three decades by San Francisco State University Professor Moses Rischin, was the first regional Jewish history center in the U.S. It contains a comprehensive archival research library, including letters and diaries, organization reports and minutes, portraits and photographs, marriage and death certificates, and Anglo-Jewish newspapers published since 1857. In addition, the Western Jewish History Center has published more than a dozen books on Northern California Jewry: bibliographies, narrative histories, and personal memoirs. Through its Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks, the Museum has restored, and continues to maintain, seven Jewish Gold Rush cemeteries in the California Mother Lode in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains.

The Museum sponsored the Jewish-American Hall of Fame, which has minted medals annually in recognition of Jews who have made significant contributions to American life. Annual poetry, video, and photography competitions were established to showcase the work of contemporary artists and filmmakers. The Museum's Harry and Dorothy Blumenthal Rare Book and Manuscript Library has a significant collection of illuminated ketukbot, manuscripts, and printed materials relating to Jewish customs and ceremonies, and to Jews in India and the Karaites.

From its inception, the Magnes has made Holocaust studies one of its leading priorities and was one of the first museums to have a gallery devoted to the artifacts and art of the Shoah. In the mid-1960s, under the guidance of leading Oakland Rabbi Harold Schulweis, it established the Institute for the Righteous Acts, a center documenting and analyzing the altruistic behavior of rescuers of Jews during the Nazi Era. The museum has published numerous survivor memoirs and has emphasized the post-liberation period, with a publication and exhibit on the detention camp in Cypress, and several works on the Displaced Persons camps.

Drawing on its own collections and loans from the U.S., Europe, and Israel, the Magnes has maintained a regular schedule of art, history, and ethnographic exhibits on Jewish life and culture. The Jacques and Esther Reutlinger Gallery was built in 1981 to accommodate changing exhibits and associated educational programs.

Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the museum was one of the key catalysts of a Jewish cultural renaissance in the Bay Area as Fromer nurtured many young Jewish scholars and artists. He provided studio and exhibition space for the revival of illuminated Ketubot, led by David Moss; he assisted Deborah Kaufman in founding and developing the first Jewish Film Festival; he commissioned the California Jewish historian Ava Kahn to create educational materials for schools; he provided the impetus to Fred Rosenbaum who founded the adult school Lehrhaus Judaica and wrote several books on local Jewish history published by the museum.

In 2002, a younger Jewish museum in San Francisco emphasizing contemporary art merged with the Magnes. But disagreements about the direction of the merged institution resulted in a de-coupling in about a year. The Magnes looks forward to erecting a new center in the growing arts district of downtown Berkeley.


R. Rafael, Western Jewish History Center: A Guide to Archival Collections (1987); F. Helzel, The Print and Drawing Collection of the Judah L. Magnes Museum (1984); S. Morris, A Traveler's Guide to Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries of the California Gold Rush (1996); R. Eis, Twenty-five Years Judah L Magnes Museum (1977); R. Eis, Hanukkah Lamps of the Judah L. Magnes Museum (1977); F. Helzel and E. Battat, Witness to History: The Jewish Poster, 17701985 (1987).

[Fred S. Rosenbaum (2nd ed.)]