From an empty room


The books I admire are written backwards from one specific location
. (Iain Sinclair)

The book waited, its covers firmly closed and filed on the bookshelf I had reserved for books pertinent to my interests – a book that I knew had great potential for my project. It waited there for a suitable pause in my life, for the space to be opened; its cover containing its words, its secrets. The lockdown experience for me has been partly a time of picking up books from the shelves, the unread ones, and this is one of those books.

Rodinsky was a shape whose only definition was its shapelessness, the lack of a form, outline.

Rodinsky’s Room is co-authored by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair. It is recounted in a series of connecting essays and episodes, and is framed as a detective story, a quest to solve the mystery of a disappearance, one that has proved a source of fascination since the room was uncovered in the 1980s. It tells the encounter with an empty and abandoned room and the sense of mystery that surrounded the person who occupied the room, David Rodinsky, a man whose identity has been erased, and whose story remained invisible.

Rachel Lichtenstein became artist-in-residence at the Princelet Street synagogue in Spitalfields, London in 1991. Drawn there in search of her family history, she wants to see the place where her grandparents spent their early years, to explore the east London streets and a vanishing way of life. In the book she describes her first encounter with the building, where she is struck by the intense atmosphere of the synagogue; dark, heavy, oppressive, and remarkably preserved, as if it has been transported directly from Eastern Europe. In this space, she feels a sense of connection to her own past, and this is where she first hears the story of Rodinsky’s room.

I soon abandoned my desire to make sculpture in the synagogue as the building left me in a state of artistic paralysis. Its aesthetic richness and history were overwhelming, there was little I could do to compete with it. I sat alone in silent admiration on the empty wooden benches, visually saturated by the scene before me: twisted brass chandeliers against a backdrop of golden hand-painted Hebrew names, sepia-stained plaster walls framed by dusty velvet drapes, lit with a soft pink hue from the stained-glass roof. […] Unable to produce my own work I became increasingly drawn to Rodinksy’s room.

During her time there, she receives visitors to the synagogue and gives walking tours of the area, finding in this part of London a sense of the history of those who have passed through, noting the ways in which the shops and streets around the building have retained a glimpse of the people who made their homes and livelihoods there. She finds herself spending hours in the abandoned room in the synagogue, which is in the process of being catalogued, archived by the Museum of London. In the room she begins to discover details about the man who occupies the room, just enough to wonder about who he was and the kind of life he led. In the book she describes how she goes about her search, talking to people in the area, hoping to identify relatives of David Rodinsky, or those who might have known him. She uncovers letters, papers, documents; tracing backwards from the first uncovering of the vacant room in the attic.

I had intruded into Rodinsky’s personal life, rummaged through his belongings, discussed his personality and possible whereabouts with many people, but the truth was I did not know if he was dead or alive.

Through this quest she meets Iain Sinclair, and finds they share many common interests. In his sections of the book, Sinclair provides a context for the construction of the myth that has grown around David Rodinsky, and how the room was framed by successive artists and writers drawn in by the space, and ‘those with an interest in the hidden attics and subterranea of the city.’ He recalls his own obsession with the room and what it symbolised, of the potential for uncovering a narrative of immigrant life from the room outwards. There is a sense that time had been trapped here, that from this room something might be recovered from a history that is under threat from gentrification and urban development. The room is ‘untrustworthy geometry, walls that moved. Beds that shrank in the night. Dream chambers that could never be discovered by daylight.’ But he begins to doubt the process by which the room has been framed, the way in which ‘we excavate the history we need, bend the past to colonize the present.’ The room has become a trap, a site of contested visions of Spitalfields. Rodinsky remains an absence in all these accounts and images, a symbolic figure resembling the golem of Jewish folklore and literature, he can be found only in his vanishing act.

Anyone who visits the room, a cell of memory, is affected. They become essayists, tale tellers, literary detectives. They have one piece of the story. They search out fellow sufferers, trying to assemble a complete narrative.

Each visit, each twisting ascent of the dark staircase, is a sort of test. It is a way of defining the visitor, adding something to the portrait of Rodinsky, by a process of elimination. Each visitor scrapes back some of the soot, blackens a finger. This is a long-term project. A biography constructed through erasure.

The motif of wandering, the feeling of restlessness is there in the Rodinksy book – it circles around the myth of the room and is always starting out. In the book, I like the aura of the photographs, the suppressed and concealed histories that buildings contain. It helps me to think about what is hidden and hopeless, what seems lost about my own project. How it changes and disappears before my eyes. Sinclair writes about Rachel Lichtenstein and her quest, how she is drawn to an empty space that is at once charged with energy, about what is paralyzing about her obsession, how she must ‘find some resolution or lose herself forever in the attempt.’ I am intrigued by Lichtenstein’s own work as an artist, in bringing vanished histories to life. How she creates an image and then finds herself unable to look at it.

My interest in the book connected also to the time I spent studying migration at Queen Mary University in Mile End, London, and all my walks around the area, through Whitechapel and along Brick Lane. This was a great place to study migration, we were told, as the area represented the point of embarkation for different communities of migrants, from Huguenots to the Jewish and later Bangladeshi arrivals. On the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane, there stands a landmark building, which has been a church and a synagogue in its history, and is now the Brick Lane mosque. The site of 19 Princelet Street now houses the Museum of Immigration and Diversity.

We walked around the old Jewish ghetto, recognizable by the still-native textile and cheap-clothing factories, much resembling Fashion and Princelet Streets in Whitechapel. I now experience the surreal nature of being on a guided tour, much like the ones I conduct myself in East London – pointing to the derelict sites where a vast synagogue had once towered over the heads of the community […] all no longer there.

The book describes Lichtenstein’s travels away from Princelet Street, ‘she had to step back from it, or be swallowed entirely,’ that eventually take her to Poland, in search of her own family’s past. It is a difficult journey, fraught with urgency and despair, hearing terrible stories of the forgotten dead, hoping to memorialise them by being present there. She visits sites of cultural and religious significance, and those remaining locations and monuments to a past in the process of vanishing entirely.

I felt that the Rodinskys subconsciously recreated in miniature exactly what they had left, their own self-imposed prison. And from their attic window, Princelet Street must have looked like a street in Kushovata, another state within a state, a ghetto without walls, with the sounds of Yiddish drifting up to them from the street below.

It is in Poland that Lichtenstein begins to feel closer to the story, to understand David Rodinsky better: ‘Ideas were flooding my mind; I was thousands of miles away from the room and had never been more obsessed.’ She learns more about his place of origin, in the Pale of Settlement, about the beliefs and traditions transplanted to Whitechapel, a way of life that would have appeared eccentric and deeply misunderstood in London. From this she begins to find a clearer portrait of him, moving away from the reconstructions of the room, the placing of its objects to frame a legend; to a greater empathy with the occupant of the room in which was found a disordered jumble of items, their meaning lost to time, and from which she traces a much sadder story. Lichtenstein experiences a revelation in understanding the significance of his room, and touches on the experience of migrants everywhere, of what might remains in the places we remember as well as those that are lost to us.

To me David Rodinksy’s story seems to touch on a human need for a contemporary myth of discovery and survival. Sometimes I question whether Rodinsky ever existed. Has he been created from our desire to believe in an eternally wandering Jew, one who seems to vanish every time someone wants to define him? I want to believe in Rodinksy, a Jew whose belongings are all intact, a Jewish scholar continuing the centuries-old tradition of learning, a cabbalistic genius who magically transported himself to a higher realm, a Jew who achieved the impossible and outwitted his own fate.

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