Rodinsky’s Room is a novel about a woman’s search for a man who disappeared in the late 1960’s, leaving nothing but an unfinished cup of tea and an unkempt room behind him. The attic room of the synagogue on 19 Princelet Street garnered attention from writers, journalists, and photographers, but no one began intensive research on David Rodinksy until Rachel Lichtenstein. She skilfully intertwines her own life in East London and connection to her Jewish Polish lineage, with the story of the mysterious David Rodinsky. The novel is coauthored by the brilliant Ian Sinclair, a man who has an in depth knowledge of London’s history. Actually, no. A man who probably has an in depth knowledge of everything. Through the pursuit of another, she discovers herself.
Rachel Lichtenstein is an artist turned detective. The methods she uses to discover more about Rodinsky are wide-spread and professional. Here are the means by which she progresses her story:
Tracks down Donald Chesworth, chairman of the Rodinsky film project.
Befriends Bill Fishman who knows about the area and had met Rodinsky. With his help she becomes a tour guide of East End, learning as much as possible about Whitechapel.
Speaks to a person who had seen the room in its original state; tracks down the woman working at Museum of London, Rosemary Weinstein.
Befriends Mr. Katz, owner of C.H.N. Katz, String and Paper Bags and interviews him; develops her interviewing skills. Learns to not push/ask too many questions because he becomes irritated so she slows down and lets him do the talking.
Befriends Ian Sinclair, shows him her portfolio, they speak of Rodinsky’s room, his projects, Whitechapel.
Meets Saul Issroff, the director of the British Jewish Genealogical Institute to find out whether Rodinksy is dead or alive.
Interviews Bella Lipman, who wanted company rather than an interview, and wasn’t Rodinksy’s daughter after all.
Befriends David’s cousin, Carol Wayne, formerly Ethel Rodinsky, who shows Rachel letters which reveal his paranoid side, fear of other people, that he was withdrawn, clever, and religious.
While in Poland, she studies with and befriends Professor Polonksy, director of History and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, expert in Polish and Russian Jewish history.
Research and Reading:
Rachel spends hours, months, years, researching the lives of the Jews who moved to the East end from the 1880s onwards. She researches the Holocaust, her own family lineage, and the family history of David Rodinsky. Here are some examples of her research and reading:
In the beginning, before discovering Rodinsky’s room, she writes her thesis on Jewish immigration, travels to London, and spends a week at the Museum of the Jewish East End.
She reads as many articles as she can find on Rodinsky’s Room.
She researches the Holocaust to aid with her exhibited artwork.
She attends Polonsky’s lectures, learns about what the Rodinsky’s family might have been like before immigrating to London.
She reads Yiddish writers and poets, her favourite being Bialik.
Time in the scene:
At first, the most revealing aspect of Rodinksy was his room. Every day she enters the synagogue and goes straight to the room, spends countless hours there, but gets too cold (despite four layers of clothing) so she descends to the office. Rodinsky’s room was filled with books and papers, revealing aspects of the mysterious man such as his knowledge of languages, his interest in Jewish mysticism, and his journeys around London marked on an A-Z map. Rachel takes up residency in the synagogue where Rodinsky lived. She is walking the same streets, talking with people who knew him, and my favourite action of all she takes is she goes to a different cafe every day at the same hour, and inquire about Rodinsky. This not only was an adventure for her, but also very much like the footsteps of a detective, methodical and open-minded. Here are some specific examples of her research in the scene.
She sifts through gramophone records, inspects the piano, finds traces of pencil on the keys in mysterious symbols.
Removes his belongings from boxes, then photographs and labels them.
Discovers notebooks in Sumerian, Japanese, Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek, Russian, Arabic.
Sorts through thousands of pieces of paper with languages written in his hand. Finds wallet, cigarette packs with writing.
Spends so much time in the cold, dusty room, that she develops pneumonia.
Exploring places and travel:
Rachel writes of her travels throughout the book. Some to get away from the room. Some to learn more of her family. Most, to learn everything she can of Rodinsky. Here are some examples:
Becomes artist in residence at Princelet Street.
Goes to Bishopsgate library to speak to historian.
Goes to Kosher Luncheon Club, the last remaining place of the Jewish East End in London.
Goes to different pub or cafe every lunch, asking about Rodinsky.
Then she needs to step back from the room so she leaves London in the summer of 1995 to do a six month artists residency in Arad, Israel close to the Dead Sea, with some of purest air on earth. By parting from the room, she believes she is able to see him more clearly.
Goes to St. Catherine’s House to search the death certificates and finds his, but is not convinced.
Drives to Surrey to find Longrove, which she discovers was a psychiatric hospital, now burnt down.
Travels to Poland to see her family, see Poland in the nineties, find connections to Rodinksy.
As she says, Rodinsky shifts constantly in her mind from scholar to lunatic to hero. She has dreams of him. She carries photos of his room to her artist residency in Israel. In the beginning she chases down a man she believes to be Rodinsky. Obsession fuels her research. Of course, to make a work as great as this novel, and to unearth the mystery of Rodinsky, obsession would be required.
What Ian Sinclair thinks of it all:
‘Lichtenstein was obsessive, ritualistic, in her procedures. The quest for identity, for a family that would confirm her essence and existence, took her to a series of journeys: to Poland, to New York, to Israel — and inevitably, to Whitechapel. Each exploration — interviews, recordings, buildings and contents listed and photographed — brought her closer to the point of origin.’ (Lichtenstein, p.56)
‘The true Rodinsky biography, its weight and its significance, was waiting for the true biographer, Rachel Lichtenstein. The first person who needed revelation rather than confirmation…’ (Lichtenstein, p.86)
‘Rodinsky, one erased life, one blank biography among so many, was elected.’ (Lichtenstein, p. 67)