The room: An empty apartment, untenanted for over a decade until opened in the early eighties, everything in it waiting beneath a layer of dust, as if the owner has stepped out to the corner store and evaporated on his way back.
Tucked inside books are notes written in ancient scripts, dictionaries
of dead languages lay stacked in towers upon the floor, a whole
notebook is filled with irish drinking songs, and beneath a wardrobe
lies a crumpled, cabalistic diagram, the set prop of the vanished jew.
David Rodinsky lived (so it appears) in this small apartment above a
synagogue in London's East End. Beyond that, almost anything said about
him is conjecture and hearsay, leading Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain
Sinclair into Whitechapel's baroque underworld. The two couldn't be
better suited to the job, Lichtenstein a young artist getting a grasp
on her identity by interpreting her place in the Jewish world through
her photographs and studies, Sinclair, a poet and London essayist
obsessed with forgotten histories, obscure neighborhoods, and human
wrecks. Others had seen the room and written Rodinsky off as nothing
but a crank; Sinclair had even warned Lichtenstein that the room was a
trap. Still, she tracks down relatives and writes movingly of her
meetings with frail, elderly immigrants. She can't reconstruct the
Jewish East End, but offers glimpses of the life her grandparents led
there in their watch shop, trying to find a context for Rodinsky, to
understand what his language studies meant, whether he was the autistic
child of a traumatized mother, or one of the 36 lamed vavniks whose
task, working in secrecy and without reward, is to keep the world from
being destroyed. Sinclair imagines Rodinsky as a Golem constructed by
those who view the room, his figure activated in their minds as the
protector of a Jewish community long since vanished from the East End.
He'd rather not sentimentalize the past, or feed into myths of the
wandering jew. There are many odd turns here and before the end
Lichtenstein finds herself identifying with Rodinsky's contrary
characteristics--his fascination with his ancestor's history, his wish
to free himself from his estrictive community, his fanatical
cataloguing of scraps, his abandonment of all his work. Unlike many
biographers who come to know their subjects so well they loathe them,
for Lichtenstein and Sinclair Rodinsky remains tantalizingly beyond
reach, there aren't even any photographs of him, just one of his sister
which stands in for them both.
It becomes a fine image for the mystery he retains; in that crowded past, Rodinsky always disappears behind another face.