Revisiting: Rachel Lichtenstein – Rodinsky’s Whitechapel

Traversing London from near Euston Station to the top of Brick Lane through back alleys and quiet streets today, made me realise how much this city has changed in the span of just under two decades. I was reminded that in the late 1990s, early 2000s, virtually the only happening place was the Vibe bar on Brick Lane, and that you struggled to find a decent cup of coffee. And now look at it! Designer shops galore, and more trendy bars and restaurants than one could have ever imagined. Not to mention the upmarket hotels, private members’ clubs and bicycle shops…

One of the reasons I know the area around Brick Lane well is the range of projects Artangel commissioned around the area around 1999. In addition to the premiere of Douglas Gordon’s  Feature Filmin a cavernous space that was part of the Truman Brewery complex, and Janet Cardiff’s The Missing Voice (case study b), which literally took visitors out on the surrounding streets, from the Whitechapel Library to Liverpool Street Station, there was Rachel Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Whitechapel.

The project focused on the story of the Jewish recluse David Rodinsky. In 1969, he mysteriously disappeared from his attic room above the synagogue in Princelet Street, in the heart of the old Jewish East End. A decade later his room was reopened and its mess of papers, notebooks, writings in several languages and cabalistic diagrams began to capture people’s imagination. Eventually, Rodinsky and his rooms assumed mythical proportions.

As the granddaughter of Polish immigrants who settled in Princelet Street in the 1930s, writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein was immediately intrigued when, in 1990, she first heard of the synagogue. She secured a residency in the building and took over Rodinsky’s role as self-appointed caretaker. She began to catalogue the objects left in his room, and also started searching for people who had known him. Granta commissioned her to collaborate on a book about her findings with Iain Sinclair, which became Rodinsky’s Room.

Working on this publication and walking the streets of Whitechapel, Lichtenstein built up a wealth of information about the area, and gradually the story of David Rodinsky began to interweave with her own history, her knowledge of this neighbourhood they had both inhabited. Commissioned by Artangel, Lichtenstein ended up writing an artist’s guidebook titled Rodinsky’s Whitechapel, which takes the reader on a walking tour, past sites and buildings that played an important role not only in Rodinsky’s life, but also in Lichtenstein’s own. The walk highlights the last remnants of many important locations of the once vibrant, but now quickly vanishing Jewish East End. Mr. Katz’s closed not long after publication in 1999, as have many other places on the route since. Like Cardiff’s book and audio work, Lichtenstein’s guide highlights how a city like London has been a home to migrant and different communities living side by side for centuries. Doing the walk now also makes us aware of how quickly so much of the city’s tissue can change, and what stays the same, revived, refurbished, regenerated.

The book as an object is a neat little number, that comes with a map, and that fits easily in one’s pocket. Designed by Mark Diaper.

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