by Mitchell Abidor
Discussed in this essay: The House of Twenty Thousand Books, by Sasha Abramsky. New York Review Books, 2015 (published in Great Britain in 2014), 336 pages, $27.95
CHIMEN ABRAMSKY was the scion of a long line of important East European rabbis. After following his rabbi father into exile from Soviet Russia and spending time in Palestine, he landed in England where, instead of following in his ancestors’ footsteps, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and, from his base at a bookstore in then-Jewish East London, set off on a life of self-education and book collecting. This life path resulted in his becoming a familiar of many of the great intellectual lights of Britain — Isaiah Berlin, Bertrand Russell, E.J. Hobsbawm — and acquiring a personal library of 20,000 volumes, mainly on socialism and Judaism, that included first editions of Spinoza, books that belonged to Trotsky, manuscripts and letters by Marx and Voltaire, and even Marx’s membership card in the First International. Despite having no formal education, Abramsky was Sotheby’s consultant on rare book sales and achieved an academic appointment at University College London. Like many communists of the inter-war and post-war period — and Abramsky was a figure of some note in the CPGB, writing many of its position papers on Jewish questions — he later rejected that belief, and, shifting gears, was a key figure in the rescue of a cache of Torah scrolls in Czechoslovakia that had been confiscated by the Nazis. The story of his life and books is told in his grandson Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books.
Chimen was not your ordinary bibliophile in any sense. He collected what he loved, from Rosa Luxemburg manuscripts to religious books published at the dawn of Jewish printing. He could recognize a book or a manuscript at a glance and say when it sold and for how much. The books he owned were among the rarest of the rare, and yet his card filing system is described as “chaotic.” Each room of the house contained specific types of books, but they weren’t particularly well-protected, with rarities stored in an upstairs room under a leaky roof. We’re told this was “a working library,” and countless visitors came to the house on Hillway in northwest London (not far from Highgate cemetery, where Marx is buried), which became a kind of 19th-century salon, housing for a period the influential Communist Historians Group, which overturned the way British history was viewed. We are told of books on tables, of books lined up in front of other books, of disorganization. Disorganization to such a level that the Voltaire letter Chimen owned has never been located: it is perhaps buried somewhere in a desk, or in one of the files he had locked away.
There is a fascinating book to be written about this man, this library, this scholar. Sadly, The House of Twenty Thousand Books is not it. (In fact, the author’s father, the subject’s son, thinks there were actually 15,000 books in the library, but it’s a sign of Sasha Abramsky’s desire to burnish everything about his grandpa that he opts for a higher number.)
The book is full of the shmaltziest forms of Jewish nostalgia, and it feels as if almost as much time is spent describing Chime’s wife Miri’s culinary talents, the huge number of meals she made (we are told the number of meals she made for visitors probably equaled the number of books in the library), as on the library. Abramsky, in his sentimentality, even uses an adjective to describe East European Jewish cuisine that has probably never been used in the centuries of its existence: “adventurous.” Adventurous? The starch on starch that is kasha varnishkes “adventurous”?
In two areas, this sentimentality is overwhelming. Chimen’s father, Yehezkel, is reputed to have been one of the great Talmudic scholars of his time, and his funeral, Sasha tells us, was among the largest ever held in Israel. To an outsider, based on the evidence we are presented, he was nothing but another horrific reactionary enemy of Jewish enlightenment. Though we get some of that in The House of Twenty Thousand Books, in the end we are expected to find Yehezkel sympathetic.
Perhaps more alarming is the treatment of Chimen’s wife. Miri joined the Communist Party even before Chimen did, yet she plays the role here of a typical bobe, shoveling piles of food in front of their guests, listening to radio soap operas.
Whenever you entered the house, you were greeted by a rush of competing aromas: the smell of ducks roasting, the fat bubbling off them as the oven heated up; the gorgeous aroma of chicken soup, so saturated in salt, in my cousin Maia’s recollection, that ‘it was just like the Dead Sea’... My grandmother’s guests would eat a lot; she would eat a little — and everybody would feel dated.
Miri was a psychiatric social worker, but she is a cypher here, and it’s a shame. What did she have to say, what did she think about the house being overrun with books? We’ll never know.
Despite Sasha’s love for his grandfather, the outsider can see him in a different light. His “working library” was a working library for himself: he rudely refuses to share a rare William Morris document with a researcher, and a fellow-scholar has to pass a test before she can view a rare Hebrew text. And If Sasha fids Chimen’s dogmatism as a communist unsettling, Chimen’s dogmatism in his Jewish period — which Sasha treats with more kindness — is every bit as disagreeable.
Chimen’s two worlds, the one he grew up in and the one he chose, mixed uneasily. A communist, he nevertheless kept a kosher kitchen, with separate sinks for milk and meat dishes; he pretended to attend his grandson's bris, though the circumcision occurred at the hospital; and a mixed marriage in the family was simply not something he could talk about. Abramsky writes as an explanation for the persistence of obscurantism in this supposedly progressive household: “[I]n their heart of hearts — the inner sanctum beyond the reach of religion — I suspect that they never quite believed their own dogmas when it came to religion.” In that sense The House of Twenty Thousand Books is about one man’s difficulty, despite the breadth of his culture, despite his profession of a revolutionary faith for many decades, at leaving the shtetl.
This is a case study of what happens to a certain kind of Jewish communist when he is no longer a communist. His dogmatism simply shifted, and all of his grandson’s efforts to paint an admiring portrait of what he considers a lovable eccentric fail: The Chimen Abramsky of The House of Twenty Thousand Books is a mean man who was a bibliophile. The latter doesn’t excuse or make acceptable the former. I have already hidden it among my own 4,000 so as not to be reminded of its existence.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender, and a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès.