Earlier this week, Sasha Abramsky wrote about the mystical experience of writing a memoir, observed as he worked on The House of Twenty Thousand Books. He continues below with some reflections on the family legacy beyond his grandparents’ titular home and will be blogging here all week on The ProsenPeople’s Visiting Scribe series.
My great-grandfather, Yehezkel Abramsky, was identified as a religious wunderkind at the age of eight. He had a prodigious memory, and was able to reel off entire tracts of the Bible and the Talmud at will. When his family, living in a small village in Byelorussia, would walk into the nearby shtetl to attend synagogue, locals would spy the boy and call out recitation requests from the rooftops. By all accounts, Yehezkel would happily oblige.
Over his ninety-year life, Yehezkel carved out a huge legacy: as a prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union; as chief judge of the London Beth Din; as winner of the first Israel Prize for rabbinic literature, for his dozens of volumes of commentary on the Tosefta; and, in retirement, as one of the most sought-after voices to settle religious disputes in Israel. When he died, in 1976, tens of thousands of mourners accompanied his bier to the gravesite in Jerusalem.
The religion of my great-grandfather is, in many ways, a world away from my life. I am secular, brought up in a profoundly atheist household. The religious impulse was not transmitted from Yehezkel to his third son, Chimen, my grandfather. Chimen and his wife, Mimi, however, kept the rituals going, and were fully informed about—and by—the traditions of Jewish life. They both grew up speaking Yiddish, both read Hebrew, knew the ins-and-outs of the great religious texts, and kept a kosher kitchen. For Chimen, a historian with an unparalleled knowledge of modern Jewish history, one could not understand modernity without understanding the great intellectual and philosophical disputes that had riven Jewry and the world beyond over recent centuries.
The traditional impulse, however, was not transmitted down the generations. And so, by process of elimination and assimilation, by the time my generation arrived on the scene, we were Jewish in name and, to a point, in our cultural references, but we were neither religious nor abiding by the traditions that shaped Jewish daily life down the millennia.
Writing my book—centered around the lives of my grandparents, but also, of necessity, exploring the environments out of which their own parents had emerged, and the values that had shaped their years—was, for me, on many levels a grand voyage of discovery.
Perhaps one of the most exhilarating parts of that journey was coming to know my great-grandfather, to glimpse how he understood the world and man’s role within the cosmos. Yehezkel had prodigious intellectual stamina. He was, like the HaMatmid scholar of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem, capable of reading texts from dawn until late into the night, stopping only briefly for simple food, sleeping but a few hours a night. In famed yeshivas and in private lessons with scholars in Telz, Vilna, and other centers of learning in Byelorussia and in Lithuania, Yehezkel stored up vast amounts of knowledge, and learned ever-more complex interpretative methods. By the age of eighteen he had become a rabbi.
Schooled in the austere Musar schools, Yehezkel learned the value of self-abnegation, ways of standing true to principles in the face of indifference and/or hostility. It stood him in good stead during the awful months that he spent as a middle-aged man in a Siberian labor camp before being exiled to the United Kingdom; and, in all likelihood, it helped him stay morally and mentally sustained during the catastrophe of the Second World War, as, daily reports came into London of the unfolding Holocaust against European Jewry.
Yehezkel had an extraordinary respect for the power of the word, the role of language in literally carving out the realities of life. There is a photo of him as a very old man, his long, white beard almost translucent. He is leaning forward, his hands holding down the pages of the book he is reading. In the concentration evidenced on his old face, I see my grandfather, the non-religious historian with as strong a passion for the word, the man who spent a lifetime surrounding himself with books and manuscripts. And in my grandfather, I see my father, a mathematician whose study overflows with texts. I see my own office, its bookshelves piled high with books and newspapers. And I see my children’s bedrooms, their shelves, too, overflowing with words.
That passion for the printed word is something that I urgently hope will continue down the generations. And, too, that quest for knowledge, that endless questioning of humanity’s purpose, of our place and role in the grand carnival that is life.
Sasha Abramsky grew up in London and attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied politics, philosophy, and economics. He is a Senior Fellow at Demos think tank and teaches writing at University of California Davis. His memoir The House of Twenty Thousand Books is now available from New York Review Books.