The disappearing Frummer

Rodinsky's Room by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair Granta pounds 20

David Rodinsky's room, an attic above a synagogue in Spitalfields, was abandoned for many years, a time capsule waiting to be discovered. Early visitors were astonished by the scene: the pyjamas still on the bed, the tea solidified in a cup, the A to Z marked up with a record of wanderings around London, the porridge on the stove, the weighing machine ticket shoved between the pages of a book, the notebooks full of ancient languages and mystical diagrams.

Photographers moved things around to create seductively spurious stage sets out of Rodinsky's junk. The room became an urban myth, "a museum of ephemera and dust-breath, a trap" (in Iain Sinclair's words) for a certain kind of romantic spirit. Yet who was this mysterious Vanishing Jew, this reclusive amateur scholar, simpleton or perhaps genius, and why had he suddenly disappeared in the late 1960s?

Rachel Lichtenstein knew all about such unfinished business. Growing up in a Polish village, her grandfather had shown a talent for drawing that led a rich uncle to arrange a place at art school. Arriving in Lodz, however, he was tormented by dreams so terrifying that he went straight home - and found his elder brother dead. He abandoned drawing forever, leaving it to his granddaughter.

Studying at Sheffield, she worked on sculptures based on his life and then began to research Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to London. It was thus that she found herself in the former Princelet Street synagogue (planned to become a museum of immigrant life). She soon discovered that her grandparents had run a watchmaking shop only a few doors away and had probably been married there. But it was Rodinsky's room which began to obsess her. In investigating his shadowy existence, she has both untangled her own roots and created a marvellous elegy for an East End rapidly being engulfed in scaffolding, concrete and cappuccino bars, where only a single Jewish business - a funerary mason - is still thriving.

Lichtenstein's quest takes her to Israel, where she considers converting to Orthodox Judaism and is dissuaded by an amazing fortune-telling rabbi. Then to Poland as part of a Jewish tour where most of the participants are looking for traces of their ancestors and one hopes to find a treasure buried by his grandfather during the war. It is at Auschwitz that she realises her ultimate aim: to find out where Rodinsky is buried and grant his soul peace by reciting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

This is a book touched with mystical notions, full of astonishing coincidences and lucky breaks (Lichtenstein spends weeks trying to contact an archivist in London and then runs into him by chance in a tiny Polish library). But it is also rooted in the hard slog of tracking down the old-timers besieged in their grim council flats who may have known Rodinsky, assessing their very contradictory memories and forging a coherent narrative from scattered hints. A cricket-playing "Ginger" Rodinsky turns out to be a false lead.

Perhaps the most memorable scene occurs in another former East End synagogue, taken over by an "art event" where two women "dressed in baby pink vinyl" picked up old books from a pile, stamped them with "large rubber implements" and tore the pages out. When Lichtenstein sees they are communal registers and important archival material, she screams blue murder.

This resonant account takes up almost two thirds of Rodinsky's Room and alternates with Iain Sinclair's far more wide-ranging speculations. These start rather wonderfully with an image of Lichtenstein, heavily pregnant, pitching the idea of the book to a New York literary agent. "So, you got 20 minutes," she is told. "A Frummer [religious Jew] in the attic, he disappears. Who should care? Where's the story?" Yet he soon becomes totally gripped: "In the film version you could freeze-frame the cigar smoke." Elsewhere, however, one gets a sense of Sinclair free-associating round the figure of Rodinsky, bringing in Pinter's Caretaker, the ghosts and golems of Prague, "locked room" detective novels, strange bohemian tricksters he has known, and his plans to write a book about a walk round the M25. Much of this is eloquent and illuminating, but the links do get rather tenuous.

Oddly enough, it was an article by Sinclair which Lichtenstein felt as a "prophetic warning" when she was just beginning her search for Rodinsky. The whole story, he had argued, was "a necessary selling point, to put alongside Nicholas Hawksmoor in the occult fabulation of the zone that the Eighties demanded to justify a vertiginous inflation in property values". This seems much too pat. It is a testimony to Lichtenstein's energy and empathy that she can make Rodinsky's drab, largely unnoticed life reveal far more than such an easy moral.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public