... what a tale they'd tell, of needlemakers, weavers and vanishing scholars, writes Lilian Pizzichini
Every Sunday afternoon, Whitechapel High Street - the widest pavement in London, by the way - is where gangs of Bengali youths strut in their knock-down designer gear, meet friends and congregate on street corners. Around 6pm, they leave off worldly matters to rush to the mosque (formerly a synagogue, and before that a Methodist chapel) around the corner on Brick Lane as the PA broadcasts that it is time for prayer.

They're following an old East End tradition; on every Sabbath from the 1880s to the late 1950s Whitechapel's Jewish youths would promenade on what they called "the monkey's parade". Those were the days when Bloom's kosher cafe was still serving barley soup and gefilte fish to the faithful, and the shop signs, Katz's string shop, Silver's electrical goods, were in Yiddish.

Most people who go to Brick Lane do so for the famous 24-hour bagel shop - after midnight every taxi-driver in London seems to be tucking into a salt-beef roll. There are also the neon-lit curry houses, spice shops blasting Bollywood soundtracks and sweat shops churning out leather jackets or saris as colourful as birds of paradise.

Tourists go there by the coachload to sample the food and the Sunday- morning market, to wander around the Georgian terraced streets, and, they hope, spot Brick Lane's unofficial artists-in-residence, Gilbert and George. Every morning they take their breakfast in the Market Cafe on Fournier Street, just opposite Nicholas Hawksmoor's masterpiece, Christ Church in Spitalfields (the graveyard of which was once known as "Itchy Park" because of the homeless people who slept there).

I remember staggering home at 6am once from an all-night drinking session and, as I walked past G&G's exquisite Georgian house, peering, nosily, into the wood-framed window. There they were, in their oak-panelled front room, as still as statues, in their trademark three-piece suits, peering back at me.

There are many extraordinary sights on Brick Lane, and most have passed into urban folklore, but Number 19 Princelet Street is a secret dying to be told. Twenty years ago, workmen for the charity refurbishing this derelict synagogue found a 10-year-old enigma in a locked room in the attic. This single room had been home to a reclusive Jew called David Rodinsky - a self-taught scholar immersed in studies of ancient dialects.

The workmen opened the door into a room that still contained his huge collection of dictionaries, 78rpm records, his clothes, spectacles, a cup of congealed tea, a fossilised bowl of porridge and the imprint of his head on his pillow. The mystery was that he had left the room some time in 1969 never to return, and no one had been in it since. Dust had collected in his boots, and lay in thick layers everywhere. But his notebooks and other possessions were intact; they even found a weighing-machine ticket that he had used as a bookmark.

Thanks to the efforts of the Spitalfields Centre Charity these were preserved, and their artist-in-residence, Rachel Lichtenstein, has solved the mystery of his disappearance (he died in a Surrey mental hospital the same year he vanished). But, in the excitement of hunting down the late David Rodinsky, the struggle to save the abandoned synagogue that housed him has been largely ignored. A group of volunteers hopes to change that, and for the next few weeks will open the wooden doors of 19 Princelet Street to the public.

Their aim is to make the building live again, but this time as a Museum of Immigration; its architectural history and location making it the perfect place for England's first such museum. The building dates to 1719 when John Nevill, Citizen and Needlemaker of London, set up home here. Twenty years later, he had moved up in the world (as most of Spitalfield's residents eventually do) and leased it to the Ogiers of Poitou, France, a refugee family of Huguenot silk weavers, who turned the attics into workrooms for weavers. (You can still see their spinning wheel if you climb all the way up to the attic.)

In 1869, with the silk industry in decline, the building was sold on to a group of Russian and Polish Jews fleeing the pogroms. In a year they had raised the funds to construct a synagogue over the courtyard. By then Spitalfields had become desperately poor, an over-congested ghetto whose Georgian houses were sub-divided into lodgings and workshops.

Nineteen Princelet Street bears the marks of all its residents - but its synagogue remains magically intact; walking into the hallway it is as though the spirits of its congregation haven't quite departed. The floor is of unadorned stone, the stairs leading up to the women's gallery are worn by the tread of feet. To the right of the doorway into the main room of the synagogue is a stone sink where the men would wash their hands. To the left is a wooden towel roll where they dried them. The room itself has a delicate, stained-glass ceiling that lights up the Georgian wood- panelling and wrought-iron balcony of the women's gallery.

Each room is like a palimpsest with, for example, Art Nouveau handles on a Victorian door or a Victorian "Roses" fireplace carved into Georgian wood-panelling. But the most extraordinary aspect of the building is that it is the only remaining synagogue in the Ashkenazi style left standing in London. The balcony is decorated with gold-leaf engravings commemorating the dead in the Jewish tradition noting the donation the deceased's families made; the walls of the women's gallery are decorated with a pretty flower motif. An ark containing the scrolls still graces the synagogue, while the bimah - a kind of wooden stage from which the rabbi would read from the Torah - has been moved into the front room of the house together with other relics in need of restoration.

Downstairs is the original Victorian kitchen range (with, impressively for the time, a hot-water tap) on which the caretaker's wife prepared family meals, and a communal room where wedding parties were held and men would conduct business over a massive board table. Iron grilles in the ceiling let light filter through from the pastel-coloured glass roof that encases the floor above. The original gas lanterns are waiting to be replaced on the struts that support the ceiling.

Down here the atmosphere of decay is almost overwhelming, the basement had been dug into the ground by the Jewish tenants, and the walls are now buckling under the weight of the construction; paper hangs loose and there is even a desiccated rat on display. Yet into this cauldron of decrepitude Jews fled from persecution and were able to resurrect their ancient traditions and build a remarkable charitable institution. Up to nine cut-price weddings a day were held here, and local children were taught in a room which had previously been the garden in which the Ogiers children had played.

Nineteen Princelet Street is such an important site, not just because it is a listed building, but because of the overlapping stories of London immigrants' lives that it represents.



The Spitalfields Centre, 19 Princelet Street, London E1 (tel: 0171-247 5352). Open Monday-Friday and Sunday 12am-7pm to the end of June.

Rodinsky's Room by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair is published by Granta Books, price pounds 20. Rodinsky's Whitechapel by Rachel Lichtenstein is available from Artangel (tel: 0171-336 6801), price pounds 6.95 plus pounds 1 p&p.