Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: The House of Twenty Thousand Books by Sasha Abramsky

 ‘The House of Twenty Thousand Books’/ Sasha Abramsky / Halban Publishers (London UK) / 321pp/ GBP 14.95 – easily available from
By Paul Shaviv

For many Seforim blog readers, the name ‘Abramsky’ will instantly be associated with the personality of Rav Yechezkel Abramsky (1886-1976), the author of Hazon Yechezkel on the Tosefta. Born in Russia, imprisoned by the Soviets, released in the 1930’s after diplomatic intervention by the U.S. and Britain, he was for years the head of the London Beth Din before his retirement to Israel.

But other readers will also know his son, Chimen (1916-2010), whose life followed a very different path, and was, simultaneously, one of the leading bibliophiles of the Jewish world – and of the Socialist-Marxist world.  One of his grandsons, Sasha Abramsky, has written a memoir of his grandfather centred on 5, Hillway – Chimen’s house close to London’s Hampstead Heath (and to Highgate Cemetery, burial place of Karl Marx).  Chimen was a bibliophile and scholar, but also an obsessive collector of books, of which 5, Hillway contained an estimated twenty thousand.  This book describes the house room by room, and the significance of the books in each one, piled high and crammed into every nook and cranny.

Chimen left the Soviet Union with his father.  Soon after arrival in London, he made his way to Mandatory (or, Mandatary[1]) Palestine, where he took courses in Jewish history at the Hebrew University.[2] He was already a committed Communist.  Returning to London at the outbreak of war, he became a hugely influential member of the Communist party in London. To his grandson’s bewilderment, he was a convinced Stalinist, attributing such anti-Jewish excesses as he was prepared to recognise to Soviet anti-religious, rather than anti-Semitic, sentiment.

At the same time, on marriage to Miriam Nirenstein, he entered the family business – ‘Shapiro, Vallentine’, a small Jewish bookshop and publishing company in the East End of London.  Over successive years he turned it into a center of rare book dealing, while simultaneously serving the London Jewish community with siddurim, machzorim, barmitzvah presents and other ritual paraphernalia[3].

Chimen, together with other Jewish communists, left the party after 1956 – although, inexplicably, he was one of the last to leave.  He turned his energy into an academic career; first as Sotheby’s consultant on Judaica[4], then as a fellow of St Antony’s College Oxford (on the strength of his co-authored book on ‘Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement’, and on the personal recommendation of Isaiah Berlin) and shortly thereafter, at the age of 51, as Reader in Jewish Studies at University College, London.  He was appointed Professor at UCL in 1974. In the 1970’s he was one of the first visiting Fellows at the Oxford Institute of Postgraduate Hebrew Studies[5], where he was my teacher of early medieval Jewish history.  Chimen was a world-class polymath, with a totally encyclopedic knowledge of manuscripts, books, footnotes, scholars and libraries. 

His grandson has recorded the history and topography of his household, which functioned as research library, international salon for streams of visitors, and a family home.  Every room had its subject area – Judaica, European socialism, Marxiana, art history, philosophy and social studies.  Chimen and Miriam had two children – Jenny, later famous as the most senior female executive at the BBC, and Jack (Sasha’s father)[6].  Chimen’s relationship to his Judaism was complex; despite his veneration of his father, he does not appear to have given his own children much of a Jewish education, even though they grew up in a house full of some of the rarest Judaica in private hands. Sasha describes the historians[7], politicians, thinkers and scholars who came to sit at the table of this diminutive, engaging personality with his thick Russian accent, which he never lost.  His later years were affected by deteriorating health, and he finally passed away at the age of 93 in 2010.
‘The House of Twenty Thousand Books” is an unusual, affectionate, and admiring memoir[8].  Booklovers will love it, as will anyone who knew the enigmatic subject at the centre of the story. The book is not perfect; far more attention – perhaps a little repetitively - is paid to Chimen’s socialism (and its abandonment) than to his Jewish involvement and scholarship.  The author is clearly not on such familiar ground in this latter area, and makes a few mistakes.  But it is a labour of love, and a good one at that.

Finally, let me leave a bibliographic tantalizer for the readers of the Seforim blog.  In 1974, Chimen told me with pride that Gershom Scholem had visited him, and that he had shown Scholem a ‘Hassidic siddur’ from his, Chimen’s collection, “which was earlier than any previously known Hassidic book. Scholem was very excited by this. He demanded that I must publish it!”  Did he ever do so?  Where is the book now?  I have no idea.

[1] The correct spelling – See Edward Ullendorff ‘The two Zions’.
[2] He never took a degree, which was awarded to him decades later as a prerequisite of his being appointed Professor of Jewish Studies at University College, London. 
[3] As a teenager beginning to buy Jewish books in the 1960’s, this is where I first met Chimen, He was patient, encouraging, and sold me a number of exquisite and fascinating books – material otherwise unobtainable anywhere else in the UK.   He closed the store when he took up his academic career.
[4] In later years his bibliographic expertise was applied as adviser to Jack Lunzer in the assembling of the Valmadonna Trust library.
[5] Now the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
[6] Jack Abramsky, in the photographs in the book and in the video (see below), bears a very striking resemblance to Shlomo Carlebach….
[7] Shmuel Ettinger, Chimen’s closest friend from his Jerusalem days, passed away suddenly in 5, Hillway while visiting.
[8] See also here for a short video about the book, including some video of Chimen.

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