Sunday, November 29, 2009
Two Righteous Men
(Above: Seymour Fromer Below: Chanan Feld)
Berkeley and the entire Bay Area Jewish community lost two of its strongest pillars a few weeks ago.
The first was Seymour Fromer, who died Oct. 25 at age 87. He and his wife Rebecca founded the Judah L. Magnes Museum, which houses the third largest collection of Judaica in the country.
Let me explain how important this is for Jews like me. My friend Paul Ferrari can go back to his grandfather's hometown, Bogotaro, Italy, and meet dozens of distant cousins who look like him. And his whole culture has been preserved in hundreds of churches, cathedrals and family records.
But I can't. There are no long-lost relatives; they were killed in the Holocaust. And the synagogues were burned to the ground and all records of Jewish life and culture systematically destroyed. The Nazis wanted to wipe out any evidence that we had ever existed.
That's why the Magnes Museum is such a Godsend. Each one of its more than 30,000 centuries-old Torahs, arks, manuscripts, Sabbath lamps, artworks, letters, books, photos and other treasures, lovingly collected over the past 50 years, is like spitting in Hitler's eye.
The museum, named after the first native Californian rabbi, began in 1962 in a $75-a-month loft over the Parkway Cinema in Oakland. One month they fell behind in rent. But when the landlord stopped by to collect it, he fell in love with the place and let them stay there for free.
By 1967 their fortunes had improved and the collection had mushroomed. So the museum moved to its present site in a mansion on Russell Street in Berkeley.
Even after he retired in 1998, Fromer could take practically any artifact in the collection and tell you its entire provenance - its history, the year it was donated, and who donated it. He was one of a kind, alas.
Only a few days later, Rabbi Chanan Feld, the coolest mohel in Berkeley, died Oct. 28 from oral cancer. He was only 53.
A mohel is a guy who performs ritual circumcisions, and Rabbi Feld performed thousands in his time. All the parents I've talked to rave about how good he was at it, and how patiently he explained everything beforehand.
Most of all, they emphasize his kindness. It's a quality that struck everybody who ever met him - an ineffable sweetness that made you feel safe and loved, no matter who you were.
The funeral service was held at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, where his wife, Jodie, read a poem he wrote a few days before he died saying how undeserving he felt of any honors and how lucky he was to have so many great things in his life.
Then the whole congregation, more than 300 strong, spilled out in the street and walked behind the hearse as it drove slowly down the block. When it got to the corner they stopped and waved goodbye.
Rabbi Feld's body was flown to Israel, where he was buried on the Mount of Olives. It's a huge honor reserved for only the most righteous - a perfect description of Rabbi Feld.
Seymour Fromer chose the way of the head, Chanan Feld chose the way of the heart, and they both pretty much ended up in the same place - proof that there are many different paths to God.