The ProsenPeople

Fragments

Thursday, September 03, 2015 | Permalink

Sasha Abramsky has been blogging here all week on The ProsenPeople’s Visiting Scribe series. Earlier this week, he wrote about the continuity of reading across Jewish generations and observance and the mystical experience of writing a memoir, observed as he worked on The House of Twenty Thousand Books.

Libraries tell stories. The books, the places those books were published, the materials used in their production; the paper trail of previous owners of those books, and the connections from one volume to the next—all are pebbles marking hidden paths.

My grandfather, a historian both of Jewish history and of socialist history, owned a lot of books. By weight—which is of course a useless measure of bibliographic worth, but which at least tells you something about how many pages he plowed through over a lifetime of reading—there were several tons of books in his house when he died in 2010. They resided on double-stacked, floor-to-ceiling shelving in every room of the house except the kitchen and the two bathrooms. I worried, only partially in jest, that the house would collapse when the books were removed from the walls. By geographic locale, there were books originating in cities as far afield as early sixteenth century Constantinople, seventeenth century Amsterdam and Antwerp, eighteenth century Warsaw and Vilna; books from the United Kingdon, the United States, from Russia and Israel and numerous other epicenters of the Jewish and socialist experiences. By topic matter, the books—and by extension the conversations—at the house covered Biblical history, Kabbalah, medieval Europe, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution, Jewish art, Yiddish political tracts, the origins of capitalism, classical philosophy, the scientific revolution, and a host of other disparate themes.

Chimen collected vast numbers of words: books, manuscripts, letters, dissertations. He had Karl Marx’s membership card of the First International and he owned first-edition copies of Spinoza’s publications; there were letters written by Chaim Weizmann, as well as mathematical treatises penned by Jewish scholars in the early Ottoman period. 5 Hillway may have been the only suburban house in north London with its own Bomberg Bible. It hosted a collection of William Morris materials to rival that held in the British Library.

Each document in that cluttered house told a story, albeit oftentimes an incomplete one. Each book had a legion of people behind it: those involved in the writing, the production, the distribution, the purchasing. For Chimen, who knew most every rare books dealer in the Western world, and who spent years doing consulting work as a manuscripts’ specialist for Sotheby’s auction house, each book was a mystery. He knew which editions contained which misprints; which footnotes led up blind alleys; which publishers had suffered censorship at the hands of which political and religious figures. If a printer decamped, say, from Inquisition-era Spain and relocated to Mantua or Antwerp, Holland or Istanbul, that told you about zones of safety, about which cities at any given moment exuded a tolerant enough culture to generate an active, and critical, book-printing scene. If a printing methodology began in one city and, within a few years, had spread to another, again that told you something about how technology spread, about commerce routes, trade patterns, even immigration pathways.

I began working on The House of Twenty Thousand Books as a way to memorialize my grandparents. I finished working on it with a renewed sense of awe at the endless realms of knowledge generated by human culture over the centuries. No single library, no matter how majestic or ambitious, can ever hope to encapsulate more than a fragment of all of this learning. Chimen, who made as good a stab at polymath-status as anyone I have ever met, was all too aware of this. His library was a set of extraordinary fragments, a university unto itself. But even such a library is, ultimately, ephemeral, as fragile a part of history as the events and people and places contained within the texts of its many volumes. As Karl Marx once wrote, “All that is solid melts into air.”

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.

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Continuities

Wednesday, September 02, 2015 | Permalink

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.

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Memory Games

Monday, August 31, 2015 | Permalink

Sasha Abramsky is the author of The House of Twenty Thousand Books, a memoir exploring his grandparents’ lives through their vast literary collection in London. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

I have been a journalist for nearly a quarter of a century, and have, over the years, interviewed thousands of people. Yet my most recent book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books—a book that is, on one level, simply about the lives lived by my father’s parents; on another level a journey through the modern Jewish experience; and, on yet another level again, a portrait of obsessions—took me on an intellectual odyssey the likes of which I doubt I’ll ever again experience.

Writing The House of Twenty Thousand Books, for several years I immersed myself in the worlds, the dreams, the hopes and the fears lived by others. It’s a strange sensation. In some ways, the realities of those others became more real than were my own. The political passions, the bibliographic obsessions, the conversations of my grandparents and their friends and comrades, became the fabric of my daily life. I trained my mind to effortlessly wander bookshelves, containing thousands of books on both socialist history and on Jewish history, that had been emptied several years earlier, following my grandfather’s death; and I asked my palette to virtually re-taste culinary marvels conjured up by my grandmother Mimi in her kitchen a generation ago, to feed the many, many people who would descend on the House at 5 Hillway in north London for meals and conversation each and every evening for roughly half a century.

There is something extraordinary about the sensory experience that accompanies memoir writing. For no matter how much research you do, no matter how many archives you enter and old men and women you interview, at its core the project is a sensory one. It is about recreating what people whom in my case I only ever knew once they were elderly, once they were simply “grandparents,” looked like and smelled like, sounded like and acted like, the texture of their skin, or even something as intimate as how their dandruff fell onto the shoulders of their shirts, and about how these things changed over time as the people one is writing about journeyed the arc of their own lives. It is about learning to understand the old as they were when they were young, then again as they were in middle age, and to realize the immense inadequacy of reducing complex humans, who lived full lives, simply to the label “grandparents.”

For me, writing about a house filled floor to ceiling with rare books, it became a memory game about what individual tomes looked like, what aromas their old paper gave off when opened up, what different bindings and different materials felt like to the touch; the difference between the thick acid-free papers of the past and the thinner papers of twentieth century mass production; the extraordinary difference between paper and parchment, and, in turn, parchment and vellum.

Ultimately, my writing project became a series of daily conversations in my head about why this particular book was deliberately placed next to that particular book—and in asking that question, trying to draw a whole set of intellectual conclusions, about the ways in which ideas connected, the places and periods that my grandfather Chimen was drawing together in his mind’s-eye through the architecture of his extraordinary library.

There’s something almost mystical in the memoir-writing experience. I came to think that certain places retain an almost ghostly fragrance, an invisible film, of past occupants and events; and that, with enough concentration, one can briefly make visible, make tactile again, what is ordinarily hidden by time. When I got deep enough into that strange place, where past and present mingle, I found that the writing came naturally, in a flood. I was no longer a middle-aged man in the second decade of the twenty-first century, but was able to imagine myself rather a child again, in the 1970s and 1980s, surrounded by my grandparents, their relatives, their friends, and their books. It was a strange place to be, a place outside of time, a place where—I eventually feared—one could get stuck. But it was also a place that provided me space to write, and then to write some more, until, eventually The House of Twenty Thousand Books was complete.

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.

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