Monday, September 7, 2015

Building A House Of Study: Chimen Abramsky


Professor Chimen Abramsky [1916-2010]: “Professor Chimen Abramsky was one of the leading historians of pre-Holocaust Central and Eastern European Jewry, from which he himself came and to which he could trace his own intellectual roots. He was also an authority on Marxism and Zionism and on Soviet Jewry, and an acknowledged expert on rare books, especially Judaica.” The Times writes in his obituary
Photo Credit & Source: Times Online

An article, by Sasha Abramsky, in The Nation looks at one of the greatest libraries of socialist literature. The library, which numbers between 15,000 and 20,000 volumes, seems large for a private collector to have in his house, notably when one considers what the floorboards beneath the bookcases had to bear: a collective weight of  at least 10 tons.

This impressive collection belonged to Chimen Abramskya British Jew who resided at his London home for the better part of six decades. He died at age 93 in March 2010. His grandson tells the story of this devoted collector in “How the Atheist Son of a Jewish Rabbi Created One of the Greatest Libraries of Socialist Literature,” (August 27, 2015); Abramsky writes:
While his father was head of London’s Beth Din, the chief religious court for Jews in Britain, Chimen was a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and ran, with my grandmother Miriam (known to us grandchildren as “Mimi”), a Jewish bookstore and publishing house named Shapiro, Valentine & Co., around the corner from Yehezkel’s office. Later on, he became an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and came to count the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin among his closest friends and champions.
Lacking a university degree, Chimen nevertheless, in middle age, was acknowledged as one of the world’s great experts in both socialist history and Jewish history. After decades buying and selling books for a living, he spent the latter part of his career as an academic, first lecturing on Marxism at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and then as chair of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department at University College London. (He also spent time as a visiting professor at Brandeis and Stanford.) Rounding out his career, Chimen became a leading consultant on manuscripts for Sotheby’s auction house.
He was, across all these incarnations, one of England’s most extraordinary book collectors and one of the great letter writers of his age, penning missives in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish, sometimes as many as 10 or even 20 in a day, to a vast array of acquaintances. Over the decades, Chimen had become so addicted to the printed page, to the texture of books, to the feel of old manuscripts, and to the material contained in his written correspondence that he ended up surrounding himself with walls of words. They provided protection from the madness of the world outside—or, at the very least, a road map for navigating the chaos.
By the end of his life, every single room in the house, except the bathroom and kitchen, was lined from floor to ceiling with shelves double-stacked with books, with only a few bare spots left in which paintings and photographs hung. If you pulled a few bricks out of the wall of books, you found a second, hidden wall behind it. And when the shelves were filled, first the floors and then the tables succumbed to great, twisting piles of tomes. In a home that remained largely unrenovated during the 66 years Chimen inhabited it, becoming more dilapidated with each passing year, ideas were the mortar holding his biblio-bricks together: notions of progress, theories of history, understandings of civility and culture, explanations of how and why great cultures and civilizations decline.
I love and enjoy books, and like to have them on my shelves in my home. Yet, in some ways this seems like a typical hoarding behaviour, but because it is a collection dedicated to books, it is not. It is considered charming, eclectic, eccentric. This is the habit of a collector who was seeking both knowledge and comfort in the pages of these books. An understandable sentiment for anyone who shares such loves. Many people still do. Book crazy? More like knowledge thirsty.

The childish urge to know and understand everything does not necessarily fade with age, even as our bodies break down. We hope our minds remain with us to the end.

A good number of these books were dedicated to Judaica. Since I broached the subject, I feel it is necessary to make a distinction here; although Chimen Abramsky did not hold a faith or belief in Judaism (his ancestral religion), this did not discourage him from studying about the history, philosophy, ethics and religion of the Jewish people. It does not necessarily follow that an irreligious person has no interest in the history of a people, including its religious thoughts and practices. One can even have an abiding love for it. This idea baffles some people who like neat categorization.

Some of a practical cast of mind might argue that he had too many books, that he could have made the collection more manageable, by keeping the books that he really loved and enjoyed, say, 1,000 to 2,000 neatly shelved. More than that, as the argument goes, and it would feel like being cocooned in a wall of books.

But, then again, can it be possible that he likely read most of these books, and wanted to have continued access to them? That the books were not there to impress, but like a true scholar these books were sources of knowledge. Perhaps, this was his desire, giving him a feeling of security in a world gone mad. Or at least one whose ideas and ideology has moved far away from the tenets of democratic socialism and social justice. In doing so, Mr, Abramsky did what his forefathers had done for centuries: build a house of study.

For more, go to [TheNation]

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