Abel J. Herzberg

Letters to my Grandson

An encounter with a world long gone and an introduction to Jewish rituals and customs

Who is Chaim Finkelstein from Bialystok? A nobody, because he is a refugee and an immigrant. And so he must first become a somebody. He must learn to look upon his new country as home and realise that his origins have to become past history. To remind his grandson of his origins, Abel J. Herzberg writes how all this has happened to his family.

His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia who settled in Amsterdam. They brought a world and a religion that was hard to reconcile with their new surroundings. Herzberg tells about his visit to his grandfather in a Jewish village in Lithuania, about the prayer room that his father fitted out in the back of an Amsterdam house, and about the everyday life of Russian Jews in Amsterdam. He introduces his grandson to the principles of Hasidism and explains what being a Jew really means – even for those, like himself, who have stopped being religious. The writer conjures up his world incisively and with an immediacy that is larded with the mild humanism characteristic of all his writing.

The stories teem with unforgettable characters: Herzberg’s grandfather (who is the happiest of men when his grandson shares his table on a Friday night in his small Russian home), his grandmother (who performs the ancient Jewish purification rites in a houseboat on the Amstel river), an aristocratic Jew from St. Petersburg (who lives in shabby splendour) and countless Hasidic teachers who explain God’s will in miraculous stories.

Brieven aan mijn kleinzoon is not only an encounter with a world long gone and an introduction to Jewish rituals and customs; it also drives home the lesson that nothing in life is completely black or white. Herzberg probes deep into everyday emotions, which he describes with compassion but also with mildly ironic detachment. This approach is what helped turn him into a moral authority in the Netherlands. Nowhere in his work is his humane outlook as concrete and at the same time as universally identifiable as it is in Brieven aan mijn kleinzoon, still the best-loved of all his writings.

We live in a time where we need the words of Abel Herzberg more than at any other time since he wrote them.

Sigrid Kaag (Abel Herzberg Lecture 2018)

When my grandmother bought a chicken it was no simple matter. Needless to say, she felt the chicken front and back, examined and weighed it, and knocked the price down. But the chicken was meant for the Sabbath and on the Sabbath every Jew receives a special soul. That soul is filled with heavenly bliss and has to have a suitable dwelling. Everything connected with the Sabbath was a preparation for the reception of that soul and for fitting out its home. To that end you worked and lived the whole week long. The buying started on Thursday, the white tablecloth was laid on Friday afternoon, and the candles lit and blessed before nightfall. Eating and drinking were part of it all and the chicken most particularly so. So let me tell you, when my grandmother bought a chicken it was no laughing matter.


Abel J. Herzberg

Abel J. Herzberg was born in Amsterdam in 1893, the son of Russian emigrants. He worked as a lawyer until his death in 1989. He wrote plays and novels, many about Biblical characters (Saul, Herod, Jacob and Joseph), but is best known for his highly personal essays and memoirs Amor fati (1946) and…

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Brieven aan mijn kleinzoon (1964). Non-fiction, 127 pages.
Copies sold: 15,000



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