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Chimen Abramsky


Chimen Abramsky was one of those geniuses who dwarves most intellects. He was a modest, loving man, self-taught, who became a lecturer and visiting professor at Oxford, London University, Harvard, and the Hebrew University, to mention only some. He was Sotheby’s and the world’s expert on Judaica.

For much of his life he was a convinced Marxist. Born in Russia, he was allowed to leave in the 1920s with his father (other members of the family were held hostage by Stalin) and came to London as a young man. He soon became one of the brains and prime movers of the U.K. Communist Party, even supporting the Stalinist regime. Until he eventually saw the light.

I met him on several occasions in the house of Jack Lunzer, the indefatigable businessman turned collector of the largest Judaica library in private hands. Chimen was elfin, with a mischievous smile. His rapid-fire delivery of scholarship, still in a thick Russian Yiddish accent, was mesmerizing.

It was Chimen who told me about the Russian ideologue Plekhanov’s bon mot that in history “the inevitable always comes about through the accidental”. He also told me that after the Shah fell, in a short time the Tudeh Party, the Iranian Communist power, would seize control. They never did of course. He was an atheist with a deep love and respect for Jewish culture. He was hardly known beyond left-wing and academic circles, and his passing was largely unnoticed by the community at large. His grandson Sasha has written a well received book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books, in which he connects his grandfather’s massive collection of books and documents to his life.

The name Abramsky carried awesome weight in my family because of his father, a great and imposing Talmudic giant and commanding authority. He was the religious kingmaker in Anglo-Jewry and possibly the single most influential factor in creating modern Anglo-Jewish religious life. Yehezkel Abramsky, known as one of the most brilliant rabbinical scholars in Eastern Europe, was sent to Siberia for refusing to stop teaching Torah or to give in to the party’s demand that he publicly say how well the Jews of the Soviet Union were being treated. After a great deal of pressure, he was freed and came to London. Chief Rabbi Hertz appointed him head of the Beth Din and his ally in trying to assert the values of Torah over the semi-assimilated Anglo-Jewish petty aristocracy, who at that stage dominated the United Synagogue, and who were very lukewarm towards Zionism.

Amongst his earliest innovations was his scheme to identify the most talented young men studying in yeshivot in Britain and send them off to one of the great academies of the East. My father was one, and he went to Mir in Lithuania. I remember his telling me that Dayan Abramsky had promised to arrange for a scholarship to support him, but it never materialized. My father could not afford a warm winter coat. His own parents were far too poor to help him, and he suffered through the freezing arctic cold. But my father recounted this without malice. When he returned to begin his career in the rabbinate, Dayan Abramsky had recommended him as one of “his boys” in contrast to the graduates of Jews College, the more anglicized training institution for Anglo-Jewish ministry.

In 1944 Chief Rabbi Hertz and Dayan Abramsky persuaded my father to leave his position as Communal Rabbi of Glasgow and come to London to help them fight the battle for Orthodoxy. He was appointed Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. After Hertz died in 1946, the final shortlist to succeed him was Israel Brodie and my father, even though my father was only 32 at the time.

Many years later, meeting Ben Elton in New York (who had written his doctorate on the chief Rabbinate in the UK), I discovered that Abramsky had actively undermined my father’s candidacy and supported Brodie. I found this strange, given that Brodie was a typical Jews College Anglo-Jewish minister whereas my father was a Lithuanian educated yeshiva man. Naturally I wondered whether Abramsky simply thought my father was too young, too ambitious, too overreaching, or whether it was too humiliating to have his protégé in what was after all, on paper at least, the most senior position in Anglo-Jewry. My father must have known, but I never ever heard him say anything critical of him, which was typical of my father who readily forgave a long list of people others would not have. He never bore a grudge.

In 1958 my father sent me to Yeshivat Kol Torah in Jerusalem, and he insisted that I call on Dayan Abramsky, who lived nearby. He received me most cordially. Three years later I was back in Jerusalem studying at another yeshiva, and Dayan Abramsky sent a message asking me to come and see him. I arrived to see him sitting, studying Talmud with a small bald younger man (who was not wearing a kipa). He interrupted his study and told me that my father had asked him to tell me that he was very seriously ill and that I had to return to England. And that was the last I ever saw of him. A few years later (after my father had died), I met Chimen and recognized him as the man who had been sitting at the table studying Talmud with a bare head.

I recount these reminiscences for two reasons. One is out of admiration for my father, who clearly had not been treated all that well by Dayan Abramsky and yet nothing had detracted from his admiration and respect for him. Of all the rabbis he knew in Israel, the Dayan was the one he trusted to convey the awful news that he was dying and had the authority to tell me to return home.

But I also want to emphasize the other side of the Dayan’s personality. He had this awesome reputation for fierceness, uncompromising commitment to the strictures of Orthodoxy. He was a fighter for Torah against both the communists and the pseudo-Orthodoxy of the Anglo-Jewish aristocracy. Yet when it came to his son, he was so sensitive to his individuality that even knowing full well how far Chimen had strayed from what mattered to his father more than anything else, he could tolerate it with love and tenderness. What a salutary lesson and one that too few great men seem capable of following.

6 thoughts on “Chimen Abramsky

  1. I am amazed by your father's forgiving attitude, and it shows me what a long way I have to go in order to be forgiving. On another note, I think that it is awesome that you met Ben Elton, we knew each other in London. If you see him again, please let him know that Yonatan (from Zimbabwe/ who lived with the Goldschneiders) sends his regards.

  2. Dear Jeremy,

    Please explain to me the reason why Chimen was so different from his father. Why did he rebel? It intrigues me since I remember him from my student day at Jews College.
    I find your articles very interesting.
    Thank you very much
    Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald
    South London Synagogue

    1. Dear Rabbi Grunewald
      Perhaps this extract from a close friends obituary might help explain

      Chimen Abramsky never attended school. As a child he was taught at home, in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian, by private tutors, and he secretly cultivated what was to become a lifelong interest in Karl Marx. On arrival in London as a teenager, he enrolled on an English language course at Pitman College. He soon mastered English (though he never lost his distinctive Russian-Jewish accent) and was reading avidly, in all the languages at his disposal, on history, politics and Marxist economics while at the same time being drawn to a circle of emigre Jewish intellectuals – Yiddish authors, literary critics and artists – whom he encountered in London's East End. In 1936, with his parents' reluctant blessing, he travelled to Palestine to enrol in the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.
      Abramsky studied history, Jewish history and philosophy, became involved in socialist campus politics and on one occasion, he recalled with relish, was beaten up by the future Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir – then a leading figure in the rightwing Irgun. In the summer of 1939, he returned to London to visit his parents and was trapped by the outbreak of the second world war. Unable to return to Jerusalem, he instead found employment in Shapiro, Vallentine & Co, the oldest Jewish bookshop in the East End, where he met, and in 1940 married, the proprietors' daughter, Miriam Nirenstein, a member of the Communist party.
      Despite his father's persecution by Stalin, Abramsky joined the Communist party in 1941. "If you were against fascism at the time," he would later say, "this was the place to go." He soon became one of the party's prominent Jewish activists: secretary of the Jewish committee, editor of its organ, the Jewish Clarion, member of the international secretariat and chairman of the Middle East sub-committee. He also founded, from his home in Highgate, north London, a small publishing company, which printed the first English edition of George Lukacs's Studies in European Realism. Miriam, alongside thousands of others, left the Communist party in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, but Chimen remained steadfast for another 18 months – something he regretted deeply in subsequent years – resigning only in 1958, after disagreements with the party line.

  3. I've always wondered if, had someone else, other than Dayan Abramski, been the Head of the London Bet Din, the United Synagogue would have considered gelatin and rennet as chemicals rather than meat extracts?

    The Federation was always a more heimish chain of synagogues than the cathedralic United Synagogue Home Stores. I suspect that heading up that chain rather than a US pulpit probably didn't do Rabbi Kopul Rosen any favours. Of course, all this happened before I was born. I can't possibly tell which rabbi was more appropriate for the job of Chief Rabbit and would like to think that the Dayanim would consider these issues with broad brush strokes. Being only 32 actually seems to me to be a good reason to decide against a candidate. I remember that Rabbi Sacks went grey over night in a manner reminiscent of Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya

    1. You are right that Abramski found in favor of using non Kosher animal Gelatin from a purely halachic point of view but then decided that since it had not been allowed before he was not minded to permit in his day. What a shame! but the fact was that Hertz had already begun too move the Beth Din to the Right and indeed that was why he appointed Abramski. And other appointments of his were of equally right wing mindset.
      and it is also true that being principal of the Federation did my father no favors. But he was not eligible for the United Synagogue rabbinate because he was not a graduate of Jews College. A condition in those days! And the fact that he was not an Oxbridge graduate didn't help either. But yes I do tend to agree that his age was the primary barrier.
      Years later before he took ill he was canvassed to succeed Brody but said he did not want to get involved again in Rabbinic politics.
      And I have to say I was never interested either in joining the United Synagogue or indeed the Chief Rabbinate ( not that they would have taken a maverick like me anyway)!

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