Writer’s tribute to grandparents’ world of 20,000 books

Five years ago, Sacramento-based journalist Sasha Abramsky was plagued by reverse writer’s block. He had a compulsive urge to record, as furiously and thoroughly as he could, a tribute to his paternal grandparents, whose world revolved around great books, great ideas and great tables of food.

It was not just because his grandfather, who died in March 2010 at the age of 93, had been a loving influence as he was growing up in London. Rather, it was Abramsky’s recognition that his grandparents represented a rapidly vanishing world.

Chimen Abramsky, a self-taught authority on socialism and Jewish history, was also a world-renowned book and manuscript dealer, and Miriam was a phenomenal social worker, cook and hostess. Together, they presided over salons where great Jewish thinkers and other intellectuals critiqued the merits of current and past events on the world’s stage.

Sasha Abramsky photo/lala meredith-vula

Sasha Abramsky, a regular contributor to The Nation and an author of seven books, mostly on social justice issues, spent countless hours researching his grandparents, entailing hundreds of interviews and perusing at least as many books, as well as his grandparents’ letters and documents. The result is “The House of Twenty Thousand Books,” published in Britain in 2014 and recently issued by New York Review Books.

The book is an homage to Chimen and Miriam, whose house in the Hampstead Heath section of North London, not far from Karl Marx’s grave, contained an estimated 20,000 books, crammed into every room and corner of their modest abode, save for the kitchen, which was Miriam’s domain.

“There was something extraordinary in that house, not just socialist history or Jewish history,” Abramsky said in a recent interview. “It was defined by ideas and conversation … I had a feeling that if I didn’t write it quickly, it would have been too hard to construct.”

It was a race against time because many of his grandparents’ contemporaries who still survived were ill or frail; Miriam, always in tenuous health, had died in 1997. Access to memories of his grandparents’ salons — a phenomenon that seemed as archaic as the Victrola and manual typewriter — was slipping away.

“I mourn the passing of that culture, that … love of books,”  he said. “It was a time when the common man and woman had the right to educate themselves” through readily accessible literature. “Today, if you surround yourself with books, you are looked upon with suspicion.”

Chimen and Miriam were able to keep that salon culture going well past the mid-century mark, largely for two reasons, he writes. First, their intellectual dynamism drew thousands of writers, academics, political and economic theorists, and others to their dining room table for well over 50 years. It also didn’t hurt that Miriam never shirked in her dedication to providing banquet-worthy sustenance, even after a grueling day of caring for her clients in her capacity as head of the psychiatric social work department at the National Hospital for Nervous Disorders.

“All her life,” Abramsky writes, “from her youthful Communist years to her post-Communist old age, Mimi craved community: If she could not find it in politics or religion, she would re-create it in her own home and in her work. And it would be as expansive and as generous as anything in the wider world beyond.”

In the memoir, the author, born in 1972, captures his grandparents’ evolving political consciousness, from an early embrace of communism in the 1920s and ’30s, when many of Britain’s poor and working-class Jews supported socialist- and communist-leaning parliamentary candidates, to their subsequent repudiation of the Communist Party once the Stalinist purges had become widely known.

Even years after he left the party, Chimen, who went on to become chair of the Jewish and Hebrew studies department at University College London and a manuscript consultant at Sotheby’s auction house, co-authored the seminal work “Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement: Years of the First International.” It was praised by a wide array of publications, including the Daily Worker, the Economist and the New York Times.

Abramsky also devotes much of the book to his grandparents’ struggles to reconcile their secular, atheist and leftist ideologies to their Jewish identities and practices. This was a particular challenge for Chimen, who was descended from a long line of distinguished rabbis, including his father, Yehezkel, who became the head of London’s Beth Din, the chief religious court for Britain’s Jews. So while Chimen and Miriam did not attend synagogue or observe Shabbat, they kept a kosher home and refrained from flouting their lack of religiosity in front of their more pious relations. They went so far as to prevail upon Sasha’s anti-religious parents to be married by a rabbi, and the memoir recounts elaborate seders at their home.

“My grandparents were torn between two worlds,” Abramsky observed.

Although Chimen, in pursuit of his secular, political passions, broke the rabbinical strand that had endured for generations in the Abramsky family, he did carry on an intellectual chain that remains intact to this day.

The author’s father, Jack Abramsky, is a mathematician in Great Britain, while brother Kolya is an activist and writer, and sister Tanya is an epidemiologist. Abramsky’s wife, Julie Sze, is an American studies professor at U.C. Davis, where Abramsky himself teaches one day a week in the writing program. Their children, 12-year-old Sofia and 8-year-old Leo, he said, “read voraciously and think well.”

Like his grandfather, Sasha Abramsky carries on the tradition of his grandparents: good talk and hospitality. “I love the chaos of a house of ideas, and I enjoy bringing people into it and seeing where things go,” he said.

Sasha Abramsky
will speak at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21 at Stanford University, History Corner, Bldg. 200, Room 307; and 1:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Both free. www.sashaabramsky.com

“The House of Twenty Thousand Books”
by Sasha Abramsky (New York Review Books, 359 pages)

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.