Sasha Abramsky, a journalist and writing teacher at the University of California at Davis, is the scion of a long line of distinguished rabbis and scholars. This affectionate, if slightly overlong, memoir celebrates his grandparents Chimen and Miriam Abramsky, their book-crammed house near Hampstead Heath in London, the lost world of British communism from the 1930s through the ’50s, and, not least, the continuities of Jewish religious tradition even among the most secular.
Chimen’s father, Yehezkel, was a famous and rigorously Orthodox rabbi, originally from Byelorussia (now Belarus), who rose to become the head of the rabbinic court of the London Beth Din and, essentially, the arbiter of British Judaism. He had spent the years 1929 through 1931 in a Siberian prison camp before being allowed to immigrate to England with his family. To the rabbi’s chagrin, his son Chimen soon turned away from the Talmud to devote his energies to — insult to injury — the study of Karl Marx. The atheistic young man even married one of three sisters who were ardent card-carrying members of the Communist Party, before joining himself in 1941.
Until his final disillusionment in 1958, following the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the late discovery of Stalin’s anti-Semitism, Chimen polemicized for the revolution, marched with his family in May Day parades and hosted political discussions, over tea and latkes, in a house awash in pamphlets, rare books and socialist artifacts. Chimen — as his grandson calls him throughout — owned Marx’s membership card in the First International, as well as editions of “The Communist Manifesto” containing Marx and Friedrich Engels’s handwritten marginalia. Visitors to the house included such distinguished leftist historians as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson and Chimen’s nephew Raphael Samuel.
To earn a living, Chimen owned and operated the bookstore Shapiro, Valentine & Co. Just as his father had learned by heart the Torah and other religious texts, so too the son quickly gained an encyclopedic knowledge of socialist literature and Judaica, the two areas in which he specialized. For scholars or collectors of these subjects, Chimen was for decades the man to see and, in his later years, was even employed by Sotheby’s to advise on Jewish rarities.
Sasha structures his memoir around the rooms in his grandparents’ house in Highgate. The first chapter, for example, zeroes in on “the citadel,” as he dubs the book-lined master bedroom. “Up on those shelves, and in waterproof plastic bags atop more shelves in the upstairs hallway, was a collection of William Morris books and manuscripts, including the original woodcut for Morris’s book ‘News from Nowhere,’ and a complete set of Commonweal newspapers that Morris had both published and, in this case, owned. It was . . . Chimen asserted proudly and perhaps a touch bombastically, more important than the Morris collection owned by the British library.” But there were plenty of other treasures in this room:
“Down the far wall were more bookshelves, these books inside sturdy cabinets with glass doors. Behind the doors, which I don’t remember being locked, were hundreds of the rarest Socialist books and manuscripts in the world: books with Marx’s handwritten notes; volumes annotated by Lenin; treatises by Trotsky and by Rosa Luxemburg (including the typed manuscript of her doctoral thesis); original documents from the revolutionary Chartist movement of the 1830s and ’40s, whose members had marched, and ultimately fought, for the right to vote, for economic dignity, for the ability to organize trade unions, and for a Parliament that represented the people instead of corrupt, moneyed interests.”
From those last ringing phrases, you can tell that Sasha shares his grandparents’ passion for social justice. He is, after all, the author of “The American War on Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives.”
As “The House of Twenty Thousand Books” continues, it grows increasingly clear that Chimen isn’t really all that different from his devout forebears. As Sasha writes, he and Miriam were “Jewish to the core: not revolutionaries who happened to be Jews but Jews who chose to be revolutionaries.” Chimen, moreover, could be as much a hard-liner as his ultra-Orthodox father. During his research, Sasha unearths a disconcertingly dogmatic letter setting forth his grandfather’s once starkly Stalinist views: “There is nothing in it of the gentleness that I knew in the older, grandfatherly Chimen.” For a moment, though, Sasha — resorting to the present tense — finds himself slightly reassured:
“When I read it again, I realize that this six-page missive is written in someone else’s hand, with Chimen’s signature formulaically added at the bottom. . . . I am sure that Chimen believed in its contents, but it is at least mildly comforting to know the words might not all have been his. Of course, when I look at the handwriting more carefully, I realize, to my shock, that it is my grandmother’s.”
Despite her political convictions, “Mimi” kept a strictly kosher kitchen and would cook elaborate meals when she got home from her job as head of the Psychiatric Social Work Department of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. She and her family also observed traditional holidays and rituals. When their son Jack’s fiancée, an atheist from California, spurned a Jewish wedding, Chimen declared that he would rather see the young couple “cohabit than to suffer the indignity of them being married in a civil ceremony.” Happily for Sasha’s mother and father, a compromise was worked out.
One of Sasha’s most informative chapters, inspired by the front room of his grandparents’ house, outlines the three main currents of 19th-century Judaism: scholarly, yeshiva-based orthodoxy; mystical Hasidism; and the Jewish Enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah. This last, focusing on civic emancipation and economic rights, originated with Moses Mendelssohn in the late 18th century and led young 19th-century Jews into myriad forms of political activism. For years, Sasha tells us, Chimen and his friends continued to argue “Zionism versus international Socialism; assimilation in contradistinction to nationalism; religion against secularism; tradition contrasted with modernity; the authority of the rabbis versus the power of the new revolutionaries.”
In his late 50s, Chimen — partly through the machinations of his friend the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin — was invited to lecture on modern Jewish history at University College London and in 1975 was named the institution’s Goldsmid Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
Despite an obligatory retirement in 1982 and even after Mimi died in 1997, Chimen continued to consult on rare manuscripts and assist scholars until his own death in 2010.
Though occasionally repetitive, “The House of Twenty Thousand Books” lovingly re-creates an intellectual milieu that was built around old books, chess games, Russian dominoes, Eastern European food, hot tea, family and long evenings spent in spirited political debate. Chimen and Miriam’s daughter, Jenny, however, did her best to ignore it all. Sasha relates that when his aunt was in high school in the late 1950s and was asked “to name the author of ‘Mein Kampf,’ she confidently asserted ‘Karl Marx.’ ” Her father was “thunderstuck.” Jenny became a high-ranking official at the BBC and a dame of the British Empire.
Michael Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.”
By Sasha Abramsky
New York Review Books. 359 pp. $27.95