Rodinsky's headstone would be the only piece of permanent work Artangel had ever commissioned

Rachel Lichtenstein
6 March 2002

In 1998 Artangel contacted me for their new series of commissions, 'INNERCity'. They knew about the book Rodinsky's Room I was writing in collaboration with lain Sinclair and we began discussions on a project based around this story. Over a number of months we devised an artist's guidebook called Rodinsky's Whitechapel. For me it was a fantasy project, working with people who encouraged and supported me to combine my skills and experience as a writer, artist, researcher and tour guide of the Jewish East End. I especially enjoyed working with the designer, Mark Diaper, who sensitively translated my ideas into a truly beautiful product. The resulting book, which fits neatly into the palm of your hand, is designed to take the reader on a personal tour inside the geography of the Rodinsky story. The map inside the front cover marks out a circular route that crosses paths with my own walks, my family history and the remnants of the Jewish East End. You visit places like Rossi's Café where Rodinsky played the spoons and my grandfather's former jewellery shop in New Road, now an abandoned Kebab house. The final stop on the tour is Elfes Stone Masons, one of the only functioning Jewish businesses still left on Brick Lane.

Early in our discussions I suggested that we should put Rodinsky's headstone in the budget for our project. We laughed at the time, aware it would be the only piece of permanent work Artangel had ever commissioned.  But a few days later Michael Morris called, saying he thought it was imperative that the headstone should be laid. I was introduced to one of Artangel's patrons or 'Angels'. We met once, briefly, in a West End club. I told him Rodinsky's story and how I had tracked down his pauper's grave in Waltham Abbey Cemetery. He told me he was from an orthodox Jewish background and at the end of our conversation said, "it will be a great mitzvah (good deed) to pay for the tombstone of this lonely tzaddick (righteous individual)".

I chose an appropriate stone at Elfes stonemasons and throughout the month of June 1999, they kindly allowed people into their showroom to see the headstone before it was finally laid to rest. My project was completed with a private consecration service for David Rodinsky. The consecration service was one of the most memorable and important days in my life. I could not have imagined when I began my discussions with Artangel over a year previously that this is how the project would end. I think Artangel's involvement in this project shows extreme bravery, vision and something that you rarely find in contemporary life, never mind the contemporary art scene, that is Neshama, soul.

Image: David Rondinsky's headstone, 1999. Photograph: Rachel Lichtenstein