Magnes Museum

Gates to the Magnes Museum, designed by artist-in-residence Victor Ries.

One of the many posters in the Magnes Museum's collection ... announcing a benefit lottery in Vilna, Lithuania in 1918.

1670 Yom Kippur lamp from Cochin, India, a gift of the Jewish community of Parur to the Magnes Museum.

First medal in the Magnes Museum's Jewish-American Hall of Fame, honoring Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, was designed by Victor Ries (1969).
The Beginning of an Epoch (With $13)

Seymour and I began to look for "our own building" at a time when we had the grand total of thirteen dollars in our museum account. We were mind-rich and, until the right place came along, not in serious trouble. Now, in addition to "staffing" the loft above the Parkway, we embarked upon a series of real estate adventures that ruled out Oakland as we refined our thinking about where the museum should be housed and what purposes it could or should serve. I was determined that beauty of architectural and environmental surroundings, and a certain quality, more or less evocative of serene dignity, be of quintessential importance. One must know how to be a maniac, and I further vowed that we would not waste any time celebrating the woeful past, but rather the renaissance of an indomitable spirit that gave to the world the best of its energies. This must be a living museum, a museum of gladness, and it must sing; art and music and literature were to be as much a part of the museum as it was of our lives. No narrow conceptions would bind us; no "denominationalism" would divide or constrict us. Whomever contributed to knowledge of the past, and whomever contributed the shaping nuances of the present would have a place here. We were to assert that we were not Toynbee's fossilized people without uttering a sound, but, of course, the requirements of self-respect are of a much larger order than that.

The day Seymour and I parked across the street, in front of the Hansell's house, I knew we had arrived. "We're here; this is it." A few simple words marked the occasion, but we had not as yet gotten out of the car; I could not move. A dumbfounded Seymour opened his eyes in amazement, for he knew me well enough to know I was not joking. Now we really were in trouble. In back of my mind were visions of the limitations of thirteen dollars, and the certainty that we would plunge ahead. From that moment on, our force interlocked with the dynamic current in the household at 2911 Russell Street. Theirs was the close of an epoch; ours, the beginning.

Of course, we were not alone. The dream was shared, and, in this, lay its virtue and its promise, but none were as devoted, as steadfast, as down-to-earth, as indefatigable, as imaginative and hard-working as Danny and Fritzie Oxman. Others were sane; others were supportive, but we were crazy, and the four of us often combed the northern part of the State for memorabilia connected with the contributions of the Jews to the formation of the Golden West, particularly within the province of the gold rush country. These trips later proved to be preliminaries to Seymour's discovery of the abandoned, drastically-vandalized Jewish cemeteries of the period, and, in turn, not only their rehabilitation, but also their designation as monuments of state.

How we did what we did is beyond my capacity to explain. We had somehow evolved a formula that extended who we were, and then, fortuitously, extended the extensions. After work, on days off, on weekends, on holidays, we worked, lived, and breathed with the single-mindedness of purpose typical of all creative endeavors; we were an unstoppable force "riding easy in saddle."

During this period, the entire neighborhood was canvassed in order to gain acceptance for the museum. Danny and Seymour were always there, independently or as a team, but they were not alone in educating and explaining or in breaking through the invisible screens of prejudice as they fostered good will. These efforts were both needed and well-founded, for anyone who sees the museum as it now stands, without under- standing its antecedents and the subtler dimensions of anti-semitism, the polite side of hate, fear, or suspicion, not only knows nothing of history far or near, but also runs the risk of never understanding the essence of a low-key bias that aims to inhibit what it does not have the drive or means to crush. I give it to you as an absolute certainty that we were opposed, and that this opposition manifested itself in full hypocritical bloom during the first stages of the process, as well as in sessions before the City Council, whose members, both black and white, were astute enough to sheer though euphemisms in arriving at the core of what was indeed at issue. The episode, a marked exercise in democratic process, saw the direct involvement of the academic community and signaled the building of a bridge that was to link all segments in accord with competence. We could now go ahead, but what were we to do? Everything up this point had been done on nerve and on our salaries; these were our characteristics and our basic collateral. Those of us who wore involved were workers; we were teachers, dentists, doctors, and lawyers with young families. Had we projected a Golem, or were we capable of mastering the next phase, which would now, most certainly include negotiations with the principals and the banks.

The scent of the cheese was in our nostrils and daring would have to find its courage once more, but when Seymour came up with a plan. I gasped at its naiveté. We are lost; we are nothing but fools in a paradise of our own making, and we are about to be banished with dispatch. We might be mad, but the world as a whole could not be so afflicted! Still, we had to proceed, and so, each of several persons signed a paper of Seymour's devising which guaranteed the mortgage. This, and this alone, was our credit -- the strength of our names and the inference "that all Jews are rich, if not dependable."

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