the back story

For my father, Seymour Fromer z”l

When I was a child, my father gave me a book. It was about the Aleph-Bet letters, and how they lived. In it the letters each had a story to tell of their adventures—and although I did not know it at the time, each of their journeys had a holy mission, including the search for the Shekhinah, the Sabbath Bride, who had become lost and disappeared from the world. It was a bittersweet book, and I did not forget it.

What I learned from my father as a child was that the Aleph-Bet letters were alive. They were animate. They had souls (the vowels), and they had purpose. And the letters cared about something larger than themselves, although they were not always the most effective on their quest. But when the Aleph-Bet letters teamed up and worked together, they could bring remarkable things into the world. Not that that brought the Shekhinah back into the world—but it was not for lack of trying.

My father is known for being the founder and director of the Magnes Museum, and he spent his very last days and hours bringing the museum to its current safe haven under the wing of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. But his job—his job job for decades—was Director of Jewish Education for Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. And for him, the Museum began (as it is now, once more) as a pedagogical tool—embracing all ages, traditions, and backgrounds. It was, in its way, an adjunct to the classroom, dedicated to learning through art, music, film, and scholarship. My father’s approach was transgressive at times, stepping out of bounds in order to see more clearly the varieties of the Jewish experience.

Our movie, The Day Before Creation, is about the doors that can open when questions are posed without judgment, prejudice, or fear. It’s a beautiful tale of, yes, a father and a daughter in a lifelong conversation about the nature of Torah, the aleph-bet, history, science, archaeology, and God. It’s seamlessly interwoven across the generations, time, and space simply by posing a question and following its lead—ultimately to the roots of ancient Judaism.

Our protagonist, Malkah, finds herself on a pedagogical journey in pursuit of larger and larger questions, and finds that she must step beyond the boundaries of her father’s library to follow where her questions lead. Each question that our Malkah poses opens a door that leads deeper into the mysteries of Torah and the holy books, history, science, archaeology and ancient Near Eastern languages.

This is the pedagogy of my father. It is both particular and specific and as boundless as the ‘Or Ain Sof. And what it illuminates is a system of learning whose goal is not to collect (manuscripts, books, artifacts, cemeteries, amulets or art) but knowledge and understanding. While Seymour Fromer is remembered primarily for the things he collected and the Magnes Museum that he and my mother founded, for him objects were always only about the secrets they could reveal and the heritage they preserved.