on 19 March 2000
Rachel Lichtenstein's search to piece together the life of David Rodinsky becomes a quest for her own Jewish ancestry. Iain Sinclair, in turn, examines Rachel's personal journey and keeps the narrative more tightly focused. Occasionally I was so irritated by other artists, writers and historians who were appropriating the East End Jewish experience, because they almost seemed to be appropriating the book, that I needed to take a break from it. Only towards the end did their contributions seem entirely relevant. Rachel's emotional involvement with the late David Rodinsky leaves the book somewhere between the personal quest of Theo Richmond's Konin and the sublime dignity of James Agee's and Walker Evans' Lets Us Now Praise Famous Men. I was staying near Konin two years ago and Polish friends persuaded me not to visit the town because there was 'nothing there'. I shall not make the same mistake about Spitalfields. My train ticket is booked and I have already been quizzing my (gentile) father about his memories of that area where he grew up some seventy years ago.
on 20 December 2011
I agree with at least one other reviewer that this book might have been even more readable if Rachel Lichtenstein had been the sole author. I was not entirely convinced either by Iain Sinclair's chapters. For me his passages were rather a distraction from the central core of the book, Rodinsky's obscure life and the environment around Brick lane which he inhabited. Contrast that with the sincerity, affection and rather touching chapters chronicling Lichtenstein's dogged determination to unravel Rodinsky's life and death circumstances. Wherever one stands in the debate about the balance of the book, no one can argue that it certainly sheds some fascinating insights into aspects of the London Jewish immigrant experience and its historical connections to the communities that once flourished in Eastern Europe, as well as, of course, modern Judaism.
on 13 June 1999
Rachel Litchenstein's account of a search into the clues left behind by the mysterious David Rodinsky is much more than an attempt at a detective-type biography of an enigma. Much more compelling is the way Litchenstein herself has invited the enigma into her own personal search for meaning and healing in her life and Jewish culture.
Her account, written in such clear and evocative prose is imbued with a kind of honesty that is both captivating and rare. Her voice speaks out directly to a generation operating in a culture where irony and supposed distance from culture is all-pervasive, cutting through to what is truly important, namely real people and their experiences, in terms of history, culture and spirituality.
Rachel treats all her 'characters', whether they be her interviewees and advisers during the trail of discovery, or the ghosts of Rodinsky and his family, with immense respect. She not only understands, but embraces the idea that by drawing the stories out, she necessarily incorporates her own into theirs and vice versa. Her energy and tenacity as the story unfolds is very compelling. She also seems to be incredibly 'lucky' during her search, where so many coincidences and chance meetings take on a fateful, spiritual meaning of their own.
It's an idiosyncratic, personal journey through the Jewish East End, Israel and Poland. But the story and approach is so strong that it manages to transcend specific culture in its search for meaning in what it is to be human.
It left me feeling inspired, affirmed and thankful that there are people such as Rachel who are willing to take on the responsibility of being a 'cultural caretaker' for all of our sakes.
on 29 July 1999
Seeing a Granta brochure promoting the book, I was immediately attracted - I do have a soft spot for books on scholarly, mysterious Jews scribbling away in attics. Having read the book, I realise my first impressions were just that, but I'm not sorry I got the book. A couple of thoughts come to mind. The first concerns Rachel Lichtenstein, how she is able through her warmth to link with people and get them to help her in her difficult quest to uncover knowledge about David Rodinsky. The number of fortunate encounters and coincidences that occur to her makes one wonder if there is not something holy in this quest. Her stories and the characters she meets in Poland are fascinating. The second concerns David Rodinsky. I found his life story very touching. The thought of a person, lonely in his attic, writing makeshift dialogue moved me to tears. I will not disclose his fate for those who wish to read the book but it is fair to say that through no fault of his own, his immediate family's failure to integrate into East End London life after coming from Russia ultimately sealed his fate. Lichtenstein has done a great service in bringing his story to a greater audience. The nagging question is how many more Rodinskys have there been this century?
on 4 December 2000
David Rodinsky, madman and/or visionary disappeared from his room above a disused East London synagogue, never to be seen again. His room - for that was all that was left -remained locked and lost until it was "rediscovered" in the early 1980's. Is there anything about this room that that makes it special? Stories emerge continually about the reclusive, too confused or too intelligent to deal with the modern world, who are found surrounded by the detritus of their lives. What makes Rodinsky's room different is the absence of a body, we cannot be shown "this is why this is", no pathetic creature stumbling ranting and mumbling to whoever their god is, no closure. It becomes a locked room mystery, the type of fiction made famous by another man more myth than reality, Edgar Allen Poe. The room becomes a cipher, for Rachel Lichtenstein, as she unravels her Jewish heritage, becomes reconciled with it and moves to her future. As for Iain Sinclair - ever the well connected London chancer - the room gives him another pretext for a walk across the pages of the London A - Z. For once his visionary view of London is left flat footed by Litchtenstein's near obsessional quest for Rodinsky and the Jews of East London. Rodinsky's Room is also about time. A room frozen as if on the event horizon of a Black Hole, it also defined the instant of it's rediscovery . Old London was disappearing, the political strife and rubbish filled streets of the late 1970's were swept away under the tide of the new Tory Government .Peter Ackroyd states in his brilliant London The Biography , strife and filth have been central to London for centuries, and some of this past was about to disappear. Margaret Thatcher declaimed "there is no such thing as society" as waves of yuppies started their surge across the city. Hunter S Thompson once said with the right eyes you could see where the wave of the Hippy ideals broke and rolled back. In the 1980's with eyes filled with fear and loathing you could watch a false moneyed, self obsessed wave, break across London. From the East End to Notting Hill in the West, filling and surging down the Northern line to Tooting Bec in the South. The Liberal Left, the Intelligentsia, the "chattering classes" battened down their hatches and readied themselves to ride out the storm. Many looked backwards, to a time of community. The GLC parties and concerts of the time brought people together. Some marched for CND and the Coal Miners. Others looked further back, Georgian Houses squatted in Spitalfields, an attempt to forget the 20th Century for a while. Central to this was the publication of Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, taking all to an arcane, mythic London, to older horrors away from present terrors. London gripped by material greed developed an ethereal edge. At this time writer Joe Cushley was convinced he was confronted by Cerberus the dog guardian of Hades. Late one night in a park by the Thames he was confronted by two Rottweiller's and a black Alsatian , as quickly as they materialised they were called away by their unseen master . The worst thing he said was not the fear, but his fear was controlled not by the dogs but by something he could not see. I cannot think of a less subtle metaphor for London in the 80's. Rodinsky's Room, a place out of time, ripe for rediscovery, an anchor to a lost community, to all lost communities. The book is a fascinating and compelling read, although we learn little about it's subject , we learn much about Rachel Lichtchstein, who, while discovering herself , seems to create a Golem out of the dust in Rodinsky's attic. Once she is secure, her Golem, Rodinsky, and as we all eventually will, return to nothing but dust in a room.
on 9 June 1999
I really wanted this book to provide a readable and interesting insight into David Rodinsky's life here in the East End.
Like David, I was born in the London Hospital, Whitechapel. My parents were also immigrants forced to leave their homeland. Like David's my parents also came to the East End.
This book really doesn't paint a colourful enough picture of what this area would have been like when Rodinsky was alive.
For me, it does not bring Rodinsky himself alive. Was he an exceptional scholar? Was he an ordinary man from the East End with extraordinary skills, talent and insight? Was he a reclusive hermit who made no impact on anyone? I don't think we find the answers in this book.
Perhaps Rodinsky's choice of languages was influenced by those he might have encountered on the streets of this area? In the East End of that time, the world might have been seen to have started at the bottom of Dock Street near the entrance to the London Docks.
There Rodinsky may have encountered seamen from all over the world drinking, whoring and fighting in the pubs that lined what was then known as "the worst street in the world" the Cable Street of the 50s and 60s.
The multicultural place the East End has always been is not brought to life in this book. Even the most recent people to make the East End their home, the Bangladeshi community only seem to be mentioned in terms of dark eyed women running frightened from their front doors when the author knocks or as 14 year old youths threatening Lichtenstein in a lift.
Iain Sinclair's contribution? Maybe Private Eye's pseuds corner is inspirational for some people? Everyone from Ringo Starr to Jean-Luc Godard's cameraman Raoul Coutard is mentioned.....Freud, Francis Bacon, Sherlock Holmes, Esgar Allan Poe, Sexton Blake, Sweeney Todd (not the one with Regan and Carter!).
I think there is a story to be told about Rodinsky and the East End he would have known and probably loved. For me, this book is not it. Even the photographs stand alone and unlabelled.
If you are a middle-class 20-something with serious specs, this is the book to be seen reading outside the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane. If however your East End included Roggs in Cannon Street Road, the Jewish Soup Kitchen, the cantankerous and tiny Sarah serving hot bread behind the counter of Kossoffs Bakery in Wentworth Street (those poppy seeded hot rolls!!) or the Bernard Bahron Settlement in Berners Street, then this ain't the book for you!
Finally, when the author confuses Whitechapel Market with Whitechapel High Street we East Enders have got to stand up and say . . . oi!
on 16 May 2000
I was intrigued by the story of David Rodinsky when I read the first reviews on publication. Having now read it, I would say that it would have been a better read if it had been left to Rachel Lichtenstein to write by herself.Her narrative is interesting about her quest to find out about this mysterious person and also about her own Jewish roots. I became quite irritated by the inclusion of Iain Sinclair's ramblings, because thats what they were. If you read this book you can skip his sections and that won't hold you up in getting to the main thrust of what I see as the important thing-"who was Rodinsky?" We finally find out what happened to him, but in the end have learnt only very little about him.Was he a schnorrer or tzaddik? The book does give some little insight into the life of early twentieth century London jewry. I found the bits about the remnants of Polish Jewry still alive , but dying out fast,in Poland,interesting. All in all an intriguing story. Only three stars though. Sinclair spoils it for me.
on 6 August 2006
This type of search after the past always attracts me, and it starts well. But there should have been a warning about the extreme density of Iain Sinclair's prose. He's pretty well known as a writer, so maybe it's my fault that I didn't know.
His prose is dense, with lots of random name-dropping, and to my taste, tedious. Not all the time. He has, for me, flashes of brilliance, but like a previous reviewer says, too much of it is like a sendup of "Pseud's corner".
on 22 July 2015
Rachel Lichtenstein, thank you for such a wonderful book. Thank you for all your amazing research. Thank you for telling this story and not letting it be forgotten. x
on 20 February 2014
A detective story, a slice of history and a delve into a vanished era. All deeply researched and well written.