Rodinsky’s Room is a non-fiction book published in UK in 1999. Rachel Lichtenstein wrote it together with the journalist Iain Sinclair. The book is about Lichtenstein’s attempts to discover and uncover the story of the reclusive Jewish autodidact David Rodinsky. He disappeared in the late ’60s, leaving his room above a synagogue at 19 Princelet St, in the East End. The same room was discovered undisturbed after twenty years.
The place is a very important part of the whole book. Rodinsky’s life could be described and defined thanks to everything that the author could find in the room. And the room was located in a synagogue in the East End, which has a very important role in the story.
I read the book last week, and it was very interesting to see how many different kinds of techniques and methodologies the author used to identify every little detail that could be useful to her research. I would like to say a few words about everyone of them.
- Visiting Places and Travelling
Rachel Lichtenstein’s curiosity brought her to travel. She wanted to see every little piece of the places that could have contained clues about the mystery she was trying to solve. As she said, she felt like a detective, and I think one of the first things that a detective should do when trying to solve a mystery is to visit the place where the crime was committed.
That’s exactly what Lichtenstein did. She took a flight to Israel. To Poland. She took a drive to the Surrey. Everything that she could find useful to her research, everything that could help her in trying to know more and to expand her network, she wanted to see it with her own eyes, mainly walking by herself and visiting museums.
But visiting a place once seems not to be enough. Rachel Lichtenstein talks about her constant visiting of Rodinsky’s room and of the East End. She seems to express the feeling that every time you see a place, you’re going to notice something new or something that you had not noticed before.
Pic by Drew Patrick Miller
2. Listening and Recording
Rachel Lichtenstein’s main problem was that, at the beginning, she did not know anyone that had known David Rodinsky. She did not even know if he was dead or alive, but when she got to know people who met him, she took their words very seriously. She listened to them carefully, she recorded them and she wrote their words on notebooks that she could read and study later.
She consulted Rodinsky’s relatives, friends, people who met him, even a rabbi. She was always very attentive and analysed their words carefully. Interviewing is mainly listening. Of course, you have to be able to do the right questions, to make people feel comfortable enough to open up and speak about themselves and their past, but the first thing that Rachel seemed to have learnt is to listen to people.
Recording gives the possibility to listen to people again, but it is not quite the same thing. As Rachel said to the first class, there are some limits in getting information from a technological source rather than face to face. Listening is the more important thing.
Pic by Corey Blaz
3. Observing and Comparing
Rachel’s attention for Rodinsky’s room was very much a part of her research. She seems to have fixed every little detail in her mind, so vividly that she could compare his room with other Jews’ houses or places. She became aware of the use and the tradition of many objects. She needed to do it. Observing carefully is the key of researching.
Observing is understanding. Everyone of these methods – listening to people, doing the right questions, observing carefully and comparing – is an important part of a process that could lead to the discovery of new details, even the smallest ones.
Observing the photographs of the room itself, as it was discovered twenty years after Rodinsky left, was also very useful for her. Comparing and trying to see and identify the differences took her a lot of time and helped her making hypotheses and statements.
Pic by Ana Jimenez Calaf
4. Studying – but don’t forget to talk
It may seem banal, but of course Rachel spent a lot of time reading and studying. Her background as an art student and an artist herself of course helped her in developing a critical attitude and the will to interpret and to understand what an object could represent. She said she was not trained as a writer, but, as an art student, she probably spent a lot of time reading and studying other people’s works of art and critics’ interpretations.
The readings that she did to learn more about Rodinsky’s room varied a lot. She visited museums, archives, libraries, and of course she read Rodinsky’s own books. She tried to understand his notes and she got some of them translated, because Rodinsky was a language scholar.
Rachel Lichtenstein’s curiosity led her to visit many places where she could find information, but in these places she also found people who were doing research just like her, and who helped her in her findings. Reading and studying are of course essential, but also talking to people, not being afraid of having questions and starting conversations are also important as well. People always add new perspectives.
Pic by Crew