From Maimonides to Marx: The Story of a Radical Jewish Bibliophile

Sasha Abramsky tells the story of his grandfather Chimen Abramsky through the vast and varied book collection of the Jewish historian, antique books expert and ex-communist.

“The House of Twenty Thousand Books,” by Sasha Abramsky, New York Review Books, 336 pp., $27.95

Outside the relatively rarified circles of antiquarian book collectors, experts in Jewish studies and connoisseurs of British communism, few people, I would bet, have heard of Chimen Abramsky.

Yet his life was emblematic of a world that seems to be fading away, a world where people, rather than tweeting and texting, sat around dining tables and living rooms passionately arguing ideas in philosophy, literature, history and utopian politics surrounded by the sagging shelves of the very dog-eared books (not Kindle downloads) that advanced those ideas. For anyone eager to explore that vanished world, Chimen’s grandson, Sasha Abramsky, has written an evocative, often affecting and remarkably candid chronicle of Chimen’s life.

The book, published in America recently by New York Review Books and last year in Britain by Halban Publishers, is unusual for its structure. Rather than offer a chronological account of the life of Chimen (pronounced Shimon) Abramsky, who died in 2010 at the age of 93, his grandson tells his story — and often retells his story in more elaborate detail — by dedicating each chapter to a room in Chimen’s house at 5 Hillway near London’s Hampstead Heath and, perhaps not coincidentally, also near Karl Marx’s grave site.

Each room was crammed and jammed with books, often arranged around a particular subject — Jewish history, socialism, British communism and the like. Many were exceedingly rare: books with Karl Marx’s handwritten notes or annotated by Lenin, a first edition of Descartes’ “Meditations,” a 16th-century Bible, a medieval copy of commentaries written by Rashi, a first edition of Spinoza. Chimen, after all, was most famous as an expert on antique books, and was a consultant for Sotheby’s on Hebraica and Judaica, knowledge he mastered by the seat of his pants working in and later owning Shapiro, Valentine & Co., a Jewish bookstore in London’s East End.

“Moving from room to room at 5 Hillway, one could travel through hundreds of years of European political history, and thousands of years of philosophy and Jewish history,” the author writes.

But Chimen chose books to collect because he was a passionate reader in certain subjects, and though largely an autodidact, secured a professorship in Jewish studies at University College London and lectured widely in Britain, the United States and Israel.

Chimen was the renegade Belarusian-born son of Yehezkel Abramsky, a giant of ultra-Orthodox Judaism who wrote a 24-volume commentary on the Tosefta (commentaries on the Oral Law that parallel the Mishna) and in 1956 was awarded the first Israel Prize for rabbinic literature. So his House of Books was a gold mine of rare and important Jewish volumes.

Chimen Abramsky looking in a mirror
Courtesy Sasha Abramsky

Chimen, like many Depression-era Jews, broke away from one form of orthodoxy to dedicate himself to another — communism. And so the shelves in various rooms were heaving with books on Marx, Lenin and often hairsplitting ideological battles between Stalinists, Trotskyites and disciples of other socialist permutations.

What gives his grandson’s book its most compelling motif and its tension is the paradox of an otherwise brilliant man who because of the Soviet Communists suffered the years-long absence of his father — Yehezkel was sentenced to hard labor in Siberia for promoting the Jewish religion and was brutally mistreated — yet willfully, gullibly and almost blindly embraced Stalinist communism long after Stalin’s heinous crimes were publicly exposed. Chimen even wrote an obituary of Stalin in 1953, five years after Stalin began eliminating Jewish intellectuals from public life, that praised him as one of history’s greatest geniuses and thanked him for granting Jews full equality. To his grandson’s dismay, the obituary, in a Communist newspaper aimed at Jews, also contained this credulous sentence: “Stalin’s leadership was a tremendous contribution to the ending of exploitation of man by man, the root cause of anti-Semitism and racial discrimination.”

Sasha Abramsky, a journalist, author and writing teacher in California, grapples with this paradox though I felt he never satisfactorily resolves it, partly because, as he says, his grandfather never talked to him about how he rationalized his worshipful loyalty to Stalin and his joining and propagandizing for a party that had defended the Stalin-Hitler nonaggression pact.

“Perhaps he felt that others had explained it for him,” Sasha writes near the book’s beginning.

Sasha Abramsky
Lala Meredith-Vula

But to me that seems a bit halfhearted, even lazy, since Sasha interviewed many of the people to whom Chimen must have spoken about what Sasha calls Chimen’s “lack of judgment.” Although Chimen’s attraction to communism as a result of the Depression and the Spanish Civil War is understandable, Chimen, as Sasha writes, held fast to his Marxist God almost until 1960, even after the trumped up anti-Semitic trials of nine doctors accused of poisoning Communist officials, after Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s atrocities and after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

Still, haven’t we known otherwise insightful, accomplished people who for whatever reason talk themselves into foolish beliefs? And disillusioned true believer that he was, Chimen comes across as a charming, warm and caring man who took deep pleasure in his family, in friends like the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his various enthusiasms and in the salon of sorts he and his wife Miriam hosted at Hillway, complete with meals of potato pancakes and steaming chicken. At times he reminds me of Ernest Pendrell, a Marxist television writer with whom my wife and I were friendly in the 1970s and ‘80s. I once asked him how, as a onetime Marxist, he could justify outfitting himself in Brooks Brothers suits. With his characteristic tart wit, he replied: “Marx always said there is nothing too good for the working class.”

One of the strategies I most admired about this book is that Sasha chooses to offer succinct essays about the ideas, historical events and personalities that animated his grandfather. A survey of the Hillway house’s books on the Jewish Enlightenment yields discerning capsule essays on Moses Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn and on Aristotle’s view of divinity. There are informative brief discourses on the great Lithuanian yeshivas, on Hebrew printing, on the rare book trade and on Rashi. You can, in other words, read the book as a Baedeker of Jewish intellectual history over the last millennium.

The book is not quite a memoir and not quite a biography. Still, Sasha is so vivid a writer that scenes linger in the memory: Chimen quarrelling over Stalinism with the Yiddish poet and songwriter Itzik Manger, yet prodding 30 guests to sing Manger’s “Rabbeinu Tam”; Chimen’s reaction when his son and daughter, eager to give him a taste of their contemporary culture, urge him to listen to the Beatles and watch a vomiting scene from a Monty Python movie (“it has no aesthetic value whatsoever,” he told them); Chimen in old age apologizing to his father’s portrait for insulting his father’s character in an autobiography he long before penned for the Communists.

“Chimen approached books with the tenderness of an artisan, cognizant of every little detail, every flaw, every unique blemish,” he writes.

For anyone who cannot throw away a book, even if it will never be read and even if it ends up crowding a home, “The House of Twenty Thousand Books” is an affirmation. By zeroing in on the life of one booklover and how the volumes he collected informed a life, Sasha Abramsky has validated a passion that may, not too far in the future, become passé.

Joseph Berger recently retired after 30 years as a reporter and editor for The New York Times and is the author of four books, including the memoir “Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust” and “The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles With America.”