While exploring a crumbling synagogue in the East End of London, Rachel Lichtenstein stumbled across the legend of an eccentric cabbalistic scholar who once lived in the attic. In this exclusive extract from her new book, she unravels the extraordinary truth behind David Rodinsky's mysterious disappearance 30 years ago
In the final year of my Fine Art degree at Sheffield University, I decided to write my thesis about Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the East End of London. I travelled to London to conduct the necessary research, spending a week at the Museum of the Jewish East End, situated in Finchley. While there I befriended an elderly volunteer who suggested I visit the Heritage Centre in East London, a former synagogue that was, he told me, now a museum of immigration. I caught the tube to Whitechapel. The address, 19 Princelet Street, sounded vaguely familiar, but at the time I could not place it.

After travelling for about an hour I arrived at Aldgate East station. I took a left up Brick Lane and found the turn-off for Princelet Street. Number 19 seemed a most unlikely museum, with no plaque outside, and apparently derelict. I rang the bell anyway, but there was no response. Gently, I pushed against the large wooden doors and, finding them open, stepped inside. The temperature change was extreme. I began to shiver and I put on the jacket that had been unnecessary in the heat of the summer day.

A single bulb was attempting to light up the dark-green wood-panelled corridor in which I found myself. I could hear muffled voices ahead, and a light seeped under the door at the end of the corridor. I moved to call out, but the words stuck in my throat. The atmosphere still retained the oppressiveness of a religious space; it seemed natural to speak in whispers. I felt my way along the corridor and opened the door at the end. The peeling paintwork of the synagogue was lit by warm yellow candlelight. The faded purple cushions on the bimah [pulpit] were covered in tattered prayer shawls that looked as if they had been sitting there for decades. The wrought-iron balcony was thick with dust and cobwebs. Various artefacts were strewn around the floor. I cried. I had spent the previous three summers in Poland attempting to locate former Jewish sites. During these trips I had visited numerous similar buildings, and it appeared to me now as if the Princelet Street synagogue had been transported direct from Eastern Europe. In fact, I later learnt, this was almost exactly what had occurred. The ark had been hand-carved in Poland and brought over, along with the brass chandeliers and other religious items, by Polish and Russian refugees intent on resurrecting their community in London.

The synagogue was full of people running around, shouting at each other. They were students from the National Film School, halfway through a production called The Golem of Princelet Street. The cobwebs had been sprayed on for cinematic effect. The plot of the film was based on the story of a cabbalistic scholar and his friendship with a local Muslim boy. I was told by one of the students that an orthodox scholar called David Rodinsky used to live in the attic rooms above the synagogue. One day in the late Sixties he disappeared. His locked room was opened for the first time in the Eighties, with everything in place just as he had left it. This was the first time I had heard of Rodinsky. A bored lighting technician followed me around the building, feeding me tales of Rodinsky's room. "I heard that when they first opened the room, a mummified cat was found sleeping in his bed. There were hundreds of books up there, containing mystical formulas, and it is believed he managed to transport himself out of the room without ever leaving." The lighting man leaned closer. "His boots were still there, standing in the corner, filled to the brim with dust."

The moment I entered 19 Princelet Street, I knew I was meant to be there. When I spoke with my father later that night, he told me my grandparents had their first marital home and ran a watchmaking shop at 32 Princelet Street. He supposed they had been married in the synagogue. These revelations only fuelled my desire to spend time in the building. After numerous phone calls I tracked down Donald Chesworth, the chairman of the Heritage Centre. We met a week after my first visit; by then I had an over-ambitious proposal to become artist-in-residence at Princelet Street.

I became increasingly drawn to Rodinsky's room. It no longer existed in its original state as an abandoned tomb. The room had been dismantled, the contents boxed up by the Museum of London, then taken to storage rooms to dry out in stable conditions before being returned to the synagogue. When I first saw the room, Rodinsky's belongings were neatly piled away in archival boxes lining the walls in large stacks. Over time, through careful examination of his vast collection, a faint image of a man began to emerge: a scholar harbouring secrets, a meticulous annotator of texts, a comedian, an enigma.

I discovered handwritten notebooks revealing his knowledge of languages - Sumerian, Arabic, Japanese, Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek and Russian - and of Egyptian hieroglyphics. I found an old rent book that dated back to 1936. There were foreign travel books, though I somehow doubted that Rodinsky had ever visited these places. I found one notebook full of Irish drinking songs written in thick red capital letters, and I discovered a crumpled cabbalistic diagram stashed behind his wardrobe. At first I was convinced he lived alone, but bits of evidence kept cropping up suggesting he had shared the room with other family members. I found an envelope addressed to a Mrs C Rodinsky, his mother maybe, postmarked "Essex, January 1961". And another, sad letter from St Clement's Hospital social services department concerning the death of his sister, Bessie. It required him to come and collect her possessions, "one pair of gold earrings". He had scrawled over the type in red ink the words "diabolical concentration camp".

I decided to visit the local history department of the Bishopsgate library. I wanted to know what the room had looked like when it was first opened up. I found various articles, all more or less telling the same story: a David or Michael Rodinsky, of Polish or Russian origin, mysteriously disappeared from his attic room in 19 Princelet Street in the late Sixties. And then I found what I had been longing to set eyes on: photographs of Rodinsky's room when it was first opened. They were fantastically seductive, beautifully lit and composed, fulfilling every element of my romantic fantasy of what the room must have looked like. There was an image by Danny Gralton, in the book London Revealed, that particularly excited me. It showed Rodinsky's table in exactly the same situation as it still stood, covered in the same green baize cloth I had been working on only hours before. The table was piled high with books and papers, giving the room the appearance of the scholar's garret that I imagined it to have been. There was another beautiful photograph in the book The Saving of Spitalfields. The image was serene, carefully composed like a Vermeer painting.

The last article I came across was a piece in The Guardian by Iain Sinclair, entitled "The Man Who Became a Room": "Patrick Wright alerted me to a fable acquiring great potency in the amoebic principality of Spitalfields - the myth of the disappearance of David Rodinsky. Rodinsky, a Polish Jew, was the caretaker and resident poltergeist of the Princelet Street synagogue."

I was drawn further into the Rodinsky web.

It must have been mid-November when I saw him for the first time. It was far too cold to go up to the attic and I was spending all my time in the downstairs office, huddled in front of a small electric heater, wearing at least four layers of clothes. I was reading some terrible book on the Holocaust when I glimpsed his silhouette out of the corner of my eye. I only saw him for a fleeting second, as he scuttled rapidly past the window, but that glimpse made enough of an impression for me to run to the corridor, quickly open the heavy wooden doors and search the street for sight of him. I was just in time to see his tall, hunched figure, wrapped in a long dark coat, turn into Brick Lane. He was pushing a large trolley full of cardboard boxes and, as he crossed the road, I caught a quick look at his face. He looked ancient; his skin was so pale and transparent that it gave off a bluish hue, and hanging majestically underneath his nose was a long trailing white beard. His coat and large black hat were tattered and worn but unmistakably the costume of a Hasidic Jew, an unusual sight in the Nineties in Whitechapel. I was beside myself with excitement and fear. Convinced that I had just sighted David Rodinsky, I ran out into the street after him. But by the time I reached the corner I had seen him turn into only moments before, he had disappeared.

A few weeks later, when I had convinced myself I had imagined the whole episode, I saw him again. I was reading in the front office when his silhouette sped past the window. This time I was ready, I leaped out of my chair and out on to the street. He was pushing the same trolley heaped high with cardboard boxes, but this time the ice on the pavement was slowing his progress. I caught up with him easily and, my heart racing, I followed him into Brick Lane. He did not go far, stopping outside a small shop opposite the mosque and fumbling for some keys in his coat pocket. After locating them, he turned a key in the lock and pushed the trolley inside. I stood on the corner watching. Eventually I summoned up the courage to walk by, casually glancing into the window of the shop he had just entered. I read the shop sign from the other side of the street: "CHN Katz, String and Paper Bags". The shop window was thick with dust and unlit. I was desperate to go in and speak to him, but my nerves got the better of me and I passed by and turned back up Princelet Street.

A bell rang loudly as I opened the door of his shop the next day, but it was some minutes before Mr Katz appeared from his office. His face was even more wondrous close-up and he asked me, in a voice that sounded just like my grandfather's, how he could help. I introduced myself, telling him I was working at the old synagogue in Princelet Street. He told me he knew it well and used to worship there himself for many years. I asked if he lived in Princelet Street as I had seen him there a number of times now, but he lived in Stamford Hill and had some storage space in Princelet Street. I asked him if he had known David Rodinsky. "Of course, the shammes [beadle] at the synagogue, I knew him well. We would speak together in Yiddish; I thought he was very clever." Mr Katz told me he knew Rodinsky's daughter, a Mrs Bella Lipman, who used to visit him once a year on the way to light a Yahrzeit [memorial] candle for her father at the Princelet Street synagogue. He described her as old and frail. He couldn't give me any other details, but promised to get her address the next time he saw her.

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. I decided to call Saul Isroff, the only person I could think of who might be able to help me find out. I had met Saul the previous October after giving a lecture on my work at the Spiro Institute, a London institution for Hebrew and Jewish studies. He is the director of the British Jewish Genealogical Institute and has carried out a considerable amount of research into his own family background. Saul suggested a visit to St Catherine's House - the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys - to try to locate a death certificate for David Rodinsky, and he was kind enough to offer to accompany me there.

We had little to go on. I suggested 1969, as it was the year I had been born and, from the evidence in Rodinsky's room, I knew for sure that he had been alive until 1967. We located the correct aisle and each selected a volume at random. I opened mine roughly in the centre: Rodenskitzy, Rodins, Rodin, flicked the page, Rodin, Rodin, Rodinsky, David of 19 Princelet Street, London E1 DX 421235, March to April quarter 1969. I looked over to Saul, nose buried between the pages, a well-trained finger rapidly moving across the small print. "Saul," I screeched (much too loudly; angry looks flashed over). "I think I've found him." He gave me a pleasant, patient smile, reminiscent of one I'd often seen as a child on my father's face after he'd told me some fantastical story and I'd believed him, but there it was, David Rodinsky. The death certificate would take a few days to arrive in the post and then I would know the cause, exact date and place of death.

On Wednesday, a thin brown envelope landed on the doormat. I rushed upstairs to open it. It took some time, my hands were shaking so much. While taking a deep breath I read then reread and reread the certificate. Surely there must be some mistake. This could not be the same David Rodinsky. The death certificate stated he died in Epsom in Surrey.

Name and Surname: David Rodinsky, no. 391, DX 421235.

When and Where: 4th of March 1969. The Grove, Horton Lane, Epsom.

Sex: male. Age: 44 yrs. Occupation: none.

Address: 19 Princelet Street, E1.

Cause of death: broncho-pneumonia, II epilepsy with paranoid features.

Certified by JS Patmat MB.

Residence of informant: D Wiltshire, occupier, The Grove, Horton Lane, Epsom, registered the 5th of March, 1969.

How did a Jewish scholar who never appeared to have left the square mile of Spitalfields end up in Surrey? It seemed unlikely, but surely there could not be two David Rodinskys of 19 Princelet Street.

A few weeks later, Mr Katz gave me Bella's address. After five attempts to contact her, I had nearly given up hope when I received a telephone call. Bella had been in hospital; she was willing to see me after Shabbat. On the phone, she sounded frail and upset, and she began to tell me of her various illnesses. We made an appointment for the following Monday.

I took a trip to the kosher baker Grodzinski's and arrived at a graffiti- covered, crumbling Sixties council block in E1 armed with kosher cakes and biscuits. Bella answered the intercom, and I entered the hallway, which had been washed down with strong disinfectant. As I arrived on the first floor I could see a small head, framed by an amazing halo of bright red hair, peering out of a blue door.

Her flat was spotless, in stark contrast to the surrounding environment. I was honoured with a grand tour that started in the kitchen. Bella proudly showed me her large "modern" fridge and sparkling but ancient stove. All cupboards were opened for my inspection and the sweet-smelling paper lining was admired, as was her extensive stock of kosher goods which filled the cupboards to bursting point.

I felt like an intruder, there under false pretences. Bella did not want to talk about Princelet Street. She wanted to know about my family, my trip to Israel, was I married? "No? Why not!" She wanted to show me photographs of her niece. "Look how beautiful she is, my favourite, such tiny feet, you can tell by her daughter, such an angel." When I pressed her again about her former life in the Princelet Street synagogue, her eyes filled with tears and her voice wavered. "I lived there all my life, with my dear husband, God rest his soul, may all good Yiddisher girls find such a man as he." Bella lived in the rooms above the synagogue (the next floor down from the Rodinskys) for nearly all of her married life. She was not Rodinsky's daughter - she laughed when I suggested it. "He was never with a woman as far as I know, the mother wouldn't allow it: she was very strict, very protective."

In her opinion he was no genius; in fact, she described him as almost retarded. "He did have a job, he worked in a shoe factory in Princelet Street. The mother was extremely protective of him, and had little interest in the daughter." Bella remembers Rodinsky's older sister, Bertha, as "brilliant". "She was always collecting books, hundreds of books, she was very shy and never married and sadly ended up in a mental institution, alav ha-shalom [rest in peace]." The mother appeared never to have let either child have relationships, and they lived an extremely orthodox lifestyle. "She saved all his earnings for him; she was a good mother."

Bella told me the synagogue was in a shocking state even in the early Fifties. Although the last service was held in the early Sixties, the remaining community set up a bet midrash [house of prayer] in the building, and study groups continued alongside services right up to the late Seventies. Suddenly Bella switched back to talking about David. "I never went up to the room after the mother died, he didn't want it; we'd say hello, good morning, this was all. Sometimes he'd disappear for days. I'd hear the key turn in the middle of the night."

Bella didn't want to talk about him any more. She invited me back any time. I was sorry that I couldn't see her for three months as I was leaving in two days' time for Israel and then Poland. I felt afraid that Bella Lipman would not last until my return, but Bella, "a tiny little bit", as she described herself, was much tougher than she looked.

In many ways the interview with Bella confirmed that the death certificate I'd discovered belonged to David Rodinsky. But it seemed impossible that I would ever be able to confirm this indisputably. Confirming his death was not the only reason I had become so interested in the death certificate. Not only did David Rodinsky die in the year of my birth, but he died a matter of days before I'd been born. Dates of birth and death have great significance in cabbalistic thought, and I made a mental note to explore this during my forthcoming trip to Israel.

The following week, on arrival at Ben-Gurion airport, I took the number five bus to visit my friend Liz. Liz was employed as a model-maker for an animation company in Tel Aviv, and she'd asked to meet me direct from work as she wanted to introduce me to her British boss. As soon as I met Jeremy and heard his clearly recognisable north London accent, we began to fire names at each other. The London Jewish community is not so large. Liz had told him about the Rodinsky research I was conducting, and he was curious to know more. He sat me down, serving me cups of strong Turkish coffee and asking many questions. When I told Jeremy about the date of Rodinsky's death and my birth he became increasingly excited and suggested I visit a rabbi he knew of in Jerusalem who specialised in the study of cabbala.

I was too curious not to pay the rabbi a visit. Jeremy gave me his details and I telephoned the following day. A young female voice answered. I was told the rabbi had an open-door policy between four and seven on Sundays. I could come and wait, and if I was lucky I would receive an audience. She suggested arriving early.

Jeremy had told me to think of a question to ask the rabbi, as this was the standard format for someone visiting a cabbalist. My question was clear. My return to Israel had been more than just a holiday. The last time I had been in Jerusalem was only a few months previously. I had spent an eventful year in the country, leaving reluctantly for England to see my family, to exhibit some sculpture at an exhibition and to perform in the Slaughterhouse art show. I had intended to be in London for a couple of months and then return to Israel. But after Rodinsky I was very unclear about which country I wanted to live in and what path to take next.

The rabbi's room was claustrophobically small and most of the space was taken up by a large table, behind which the rabbi sat. The walls were lined with books and a few framed images of strange geometric patterns. The rabbi was an impressive sight, wearing a glamorous purple silk robe, majestically set off by a long dark beard. He sat back in his chair, sighed deeply, and asked why I had come. Didn't he know already? I asked him my question, explaining nothing of my background or who Rodinsky was: should I come back to study in Israel, or stay in England? The only piece of information I added, when asked, was the date of my birth and the date of Rodinsky's death. The rabbi wrote down this information then began to make as strange chart in pencil on a large piece of paper in front of him. After about 10 minutes he stopped, looked at me, took a deep breath, and then closed his eyes while resting his hands together as if in prayer. He stayed in this position for a long time.

Finally he opened his eyes, threw down his hands on the table and looked straight at me. Slowly, in disjointed English and carefully chosen words, he began to speak. "You need to spend time in nature alone." Long pause. "You are in some ways fragile, but have a strong nefesh [soul] and a thirst to discover the depth in things. You are always searching for disappearing things; most of the time you do not find them, sometimes you do. You are connected to the olam ha sod, the secrets of the earth, you are the one that peels back the layers of the earth, like an onion, to find the meaning. This man, Rodinsky, his neshamma [spirit] is connected to yours; you must continue your search, it is this search that will lead you to the right path." His last words had made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Maybe he was right, that it was destiny, my duty, the will of God for me to find out what had happened to David Rodinsky. The rabbi stopped talking and we sat in silence ...

From the book `Rodinsky's Room' by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, published by Granta Books on 3 June, priced pounds 20. A series of art projects, `Rodinsky's Whitechapel', takes place from 2-30 June. Details and a guidebook (pounds 6.95) are available from Artangel, telephone 0171-336 6801.

Comments