Remembering East End Jewish Bookshops
When I published photographs of the Antiquarian Bookshops of Old London recently, Paul Shaviv from New York sent me this poignant personal memoir of two celebrated Jewish bookshops
Jacob Nirenstein outside Shapiro, Vallentine in Wentworth St (c.1900)
Of all the bookshops serving the Jewish population of the East End, by the nineteen-sixties only a handful remained. Of those, two in particular were remarkable to me – Cailingold in Old Montague St and Shapiro, Vallentine in Wentworth St.
‘M. L. Cailingold’ was owned by Moshe Leib Cailingold who came from a bookselling family in Warsaw and died in 1967. He arrived in England in 1920 to establish a branch of the family business and opened a tiny shop in Old Montague St, but what few people knew was that opposite the shop he had a narrow, ramshackle, five-storey warehouse which housed his stock. Moshe dealt in rare and scholarly books, maintaining an office at 37 Museum St, where he kept his most valuable items and from where he functioned, too, as Hebraica and Judaica adviser to the British Museum. As he got older, Moshe could no longer negotiate the stairs up to the upper floors of his East End warehouse and the stock lay undisturbed for years.
At the age of twenty-two, Moshe’s daughter, Esther, had gone to Jerusalem to teach English at the Evelina de Rothschild School, headed for years by the legendary Miss Annie Landau, the aunt of Oliver Sacks. Esther was killed fighting in defence of the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and Moshe’s other daughter, Miriam (‘Mimi’) married the distinguished Israeli diplomat and civil servant Yehudah Avner who at one time was Israeli ambassador to London.
So, in June 1967 when Moshe’s health deteriorated, it was his son, Asher, who came to Spitalfields from Israel to care for him. “I returned from the battle on the Golan Heights on June 18th 1967 and soon heard that my dad’s health had taken a turn for the worst,” Asher told me, “and by the end of the month I was in London with my wife and children.”
Moshe Leib Cailingold passed away in August 1967 and, soon after, Asher and a cousin arranged a sale. It was an international event. Before the building was open to the public, it was open for collectors and dealers who flew in from Israel, America and Europe. At the time, I was a young, impecunious university student, just beginning a lifetime’s collecting obsession with Judaica and I knew that by the time the building opened to the public, the best books would be gone – not that I imagined that I would be able to afford any of the rarities, but I wanted the experience of seeing them! So I made my way to the East End and offered to work at the sale, carrying books in return for access to the warehouse. Asher Cailingold agreed and I enjoyed a magical couple of days roaming the warehouse in Old Montague St. I was assigned to individual buyers as they went through the stock and they gave me piles of books to carry down to the bookseller’s son to assess and price.
On the ground floor of the warehouse was a lean-to outhouse which no-one had paid any attention to until the last day of the private sale, when a well-known collector from Manchester asked if anyone knew what was inside it. The contents were a mystery and I was dispatched to find a crowbar to prise open the padlocked door. When we opened the lean-to, it was stacked with books. The collector from Manchester reached inside and snatched one book at random. He opened it, turned to Asher and said, “I’ll buy the whole contents.” The book he held in his hand was a rare antiquarian Hebrew tome printed in Venice and it turned out that the outhouse contained the stock from Moshe’s father’s bookshop in Warsaw, untouched for decades. Although, I could afford to buy only a few ephemeral pamphlets and books, it was a great experience for me.
Osborn St was home to another well-known bookseller and general Judaica store, R. Golub, and across from there was Wentworth St containing the small shopfront of ‘Shapiro, Vallentine’. Shapiro, Vallentine was a publisher and bookseller with roots that went back into the nineteenth century. Originally owned by the Nirenstein family, in 1940 their daughter, Miriam, married a young Russian émigré, Chimen Abramsky, and he took over the store. Chimen, who passed away in 2010 at the age of ninety-three, was an astonishing, if diminutive, personality. He was the son of Rabbi Yechezel Abramsky (1866-1976), one of the great Talmudical scholars and Jewish legal authorities of the twentieth century, and in the thirties the rabbi of the great ‘Machzike Hadass’ (“Upholders of the Faith”) synagogue on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier St – which, famously, had been built as a Huguenot Chapel, became a synagogue and is now a mosque.
Although Chimen greatly respected his father, he did not share his beliefs and was a dedicated Communist until after 1956. His life story and his twin bibliophilic obsessions of Marxism and Judaica have become the subject of a recent biography written by his grandson, Sasha Abramsky, entitled ‘The House of Twenty Thousand Books.’
Shapiro, Vallentine was a trove of scholarly, academic and rare Judaica and rare, left-wing and radical literature and ephemera. Chimen knew his subject and served for years as Sotheby’s consultant and expert on Judaica and Hebraica, and later as adviser to Jack Lunzer who created the Valmadonna Trust collection. Eventually, Chimen closed the shop in the late sixties when he was appointed to the faculty of University College, London, later becoming Professor of Jewish Studies. As a leading theoretician of the London Left, an expert on Marx and Marxism, and on Jewish history, Chimen had a brilliant, polymathic mind, and an encyclopedic knowledge of books, printing, and manuscripts. He and his wife Miriam had two children – Jack, a mathematician and their daughter, the distinguished cultural figure, Dame Jenny Abramsky, formerly of the BBC.
Let me conclude by acknowledging my own East End roots – my late father grew up between the wars, in poverty, in the tenements of Thrawl St in Spitalfields. When I was a child, he used to take me occasionally on a sentimental excursion “down the Lane” on Sunday mornings and show me where he had been brought up, and the Machzike Hadass synagogue where his family attended. We always stopped at Marks delicatessen or Barnett’s, for kosher delights or pickled cucumbers, and to shake hands with ‘Prince Monolulu’. My father belonged to a vanished East End. He died young, at only forty-nine years old, in 1968. Just a week or so ago was the forty-seventh anniversary of his passing – as they say, “May his memory be for a blessing.”
Chimen Abramsky of Shapiro, Vallentine
Photos courtesy Abramsky Family Archive
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