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‘Angels are just one more species’

David Katz meets Lionel Ziprin, mystic, maven and maverick of New York’s Lower East Side

David Katz  |  Winter 2006/2007  -  Number 204


‘But subtle is that entry when it comes.

It comes like floss.

It rides on an ability, making one of two.

It makes also a mystery, replacing common light’

- Sentencial Metaphrastic

‘The Jews will have to leave for another planet - Jupiter’

- Lionel Ziprin, Purim 2006

Orthodox Judaism, with its grey-bearded congregants in pure white shirts, tallissim, long black coats and wide-brimmed fedoras, laying tefillin and softly dovening in dimly lit shuls, may seem irreconcilably opposed to the secular libertines of the mid-twentieth-century avant garde, devotees of all that is modern and against the grain, practising their own rituals at art openings, poetry readings, happenings and ‘scenes’, but in the life and times of Lionel Ziprin they merge into a rich and strange tapestry of culture and history.

Poet, artist, Kabbalist, descendent of mystics and, some say, mystic himself, Lionel Ziprin has spent a lifetime in the artistic ferment and social upheavals of the Lower East Side, a fertile incubator of culture, counterculture, religion and politics for more then a hundred years. His life straddles the LES of Henry Roth (Call It Sleep) and Michael Gold (Jews Without Money), as well as the East Village of Thelonious Monk and Allen Ginsberg. Ziprin penned comic books after the war, lectured on the Zohar in the sixties to Bruce Connor and Ira Cohen, composed a thousand-page epic poem entitled Sentencial Metaphrastic, (‘I reduced it to 785 pages. I call it the longest and most boring poem since Milton’s Paradise Lost’). He nurtured the work of his friend Harry Smith, who recorded the liturgical music of Ziprin’s grandfather, the eminent Orthodox rabbi and Kabbala scholar Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, at his yeshiva, the legendary Home of the Sages of Israel, on the Lower East Side, in the early fifties.

‘I grew up right here, fifty feet from this house, through the Depression. We were living here on Grand and Essex Street. There were stables on Henry Street, Madison, Cherry Street - horse and wagons. Cats you would see dying from the cold – it was unbelievable. No steam, no food, no heat, no lights: but people liked each other more. We were all poor. I’ve lived in an area of four or five square blocks most of my life.’

Ziprin’s apartment on East Broadway, off Grand Street, is packed with books on religion and spirituality and, for some reason, electrical engineering, along with an impressive collection of black fedoras he sports when his head is not under a yarmulke. In his mid-eighties, he suffers from chronic emphysema, requiring periodic trips to an oxygen tank in his bedroom. He can be pensive, silent and moody, or remarkably energetic and expansive, flailing his arms and raising his voice when agitated about the President of Iran (‘There’s no difference between his speeches and Hitler’s speeches! I listened to Hitler in German, he used to speak for hours, on amphetamines - the same psychosis, the same music . . .’) or the absolute necessity of filling Elisha’s cup to the brim on Pesach, when he found the stamina to preside over a four-hour seder, reading from a yellowed, dog-eared Haggadah that, curiously enough, barely mentions Moses. The food, donated by a local schule, is terrible; the wine, plentiful, and Lionel recounts the story of Exodus with the bravado and knowledge of the truly devout, his speech inflected with Yinglish, that peculiar Jewish-Yiddish-English dialect of the Lower East Side, in which the object of the verb somehow ends up in front of the subject. His hair and long flowing beard are white, his face is pale and wizened, but his eyes are dark, alive and sparkle with a mixture of mischief and wisdom.

As a child afflicted with epilepsy and rheumatic fever, Lionel Ziprin seemed to live in an alternative reality. From an early age, there were visions: ‘I thought I saw angels on the trees, passing East Broadway, way past the library. I saw them lying on the trees. I thought I was living in the Bible when I was a kid, in my grandfather’s house. I was in another world; the only thing that proved to me that I wasn’t living in the Bible was that I didn’t speak English till I was 10 years old.’

His childhood was troubled. At 5, he was kicked out of the yeshiva for laughing at the rabbis (‘I hated it! It was like a prison!’). Around the same time, his father left the household. ‘I looked for him for months by the window, he’d never come. He knew all the Jewish poets, the Jewish writers. He had to earn some money, so he became a lawyer, later he worked for Columbia University. He did the letter S for the Thorndike Semantic Dictionary. When I was 19 I worked in his office on Park Avenue. I was working for the Seven Arts and the Overseas News Agency and the Jewish Telegraphic Service, all at once. We had machines bringing in news of Auschwitz, the horrors of the war.’

Ziprin began writing poetry, and received a scholarship to Columbia University, impressing the critic and scholar Mark Van Doren with articles on Thomas Wolfe, Keats and the Greeks; however, his studies were cut short due to poverty, and his almost dogged inability to fit in. Nonetheless, he wrote several long poems, ‘What This Abacus Was’ and ‘Math Glass’, published after the war by his friend Asa Benveniste, the founder of Trigram Press. ‘He was a Turkish Jew; he had a very good poetry magazine, called The Trigram. I knew him in college; he went into the army. Later, he stayed in Paris. There were a lot of people who stayed in Paris; it’s a literary place and you can always go to Morocco. “Moroc” they call it, and you can get all the free hashish you want, and come back. He and a guy called Themistocles Hoetis, this guy George Salamos, published a magazine called Zero; George came to New York, and he said: Give us what you got. So I gave them “Math Glass”, and he published it and somehow T. S. Eliot got a part of it, and wrote me a nice little letter about it.’

Through the late forties and into the fifties, Ziprin also cranked out comic books for Dell Publishing. At the time, DC Comics had a lock on the superhero genre. ‘You couldn’t write about Superman or space. Dell made contracts with all the movie companies and I wrote a series of comic books on every battle in the Pacific and European theatres. They gave me the theme, or movies would come out, big movies; they handed me the script, and I had to put it into comic book form. All I got was ten dollars a page: six boxes, balloons and lines, and I had to sign away everything, that it was not my property, no credit. But I was America’s best-selling writer of comic books, my comic books sold in the millions of copies.’

In 1952, Ziprin married Joanna, an artist and animator, a great beauty later reputed to be the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s ‘Visions of Joanna’. Joanna was - in the conformist Eisenhower America of the 1950s - a beatnik, and she introduced Lionel, a devout Orthodox Jew, to be-bop jazz, downtown bohemia and the avant garde art scene.

On the day following his marriage to Joanna, Harry Smith, an extraordinary polymath and experimental filmmaker, appeared at Ziprin’s door. ‘I had my wedding in my grandfather’s synagogue. We had a seven-flight walk-up on 88th street near the river. A little rooftop. Pigeons. The next morning, the morning after the first night of the wedding, there’s a knock on the door. Who the hell is knocking, nobody knows where we are! I open the door; I thought it was the stupid landlady or something. I jumped ten feet back! There is Harry Smith! He looked older than when he died! He was carrying Indian feathers, because he lived on the reservation, and he’s carrying an Eskimo seal made out of marble and he says [gravels his voice in imitation] “Well, are you Lionel Ziprin?” So Harry comes in, and from then on, for the next ten or twelve years, he’s there every night for dinner.’

Smith’s parents were part of the early Modern Spiritualist movement in the United States. His mother taught on the Lummi Indian Reservation where Harry recorded many Lummi songs and rituals; he went on to develop an important collection of religious objects. An obsessive ethnomusicologist, he culled an Anthology of American Folk Music from a massive personal collection of 78 rpm records. Featuring then obscure artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, it was released by Folkways in 1952 and the bible of the Greenwich Village folk scene, credited with sparking the folk and blues revival of the late fifties and early sixties.

Smith could talk for hours on subjects as arcane as the tarot, the philosopher’s stone, Indian feathers, exotic plants, extinct religions, his collection of 30,000 Ukrainian Easter eggs, Aleister Crowley and various forms of lost or forgotten magic. Obsessive, abrasive, erratic, a bohemian’s bohemian, he frequently borrowed money, which just as often was never repaid.

‘He would go to the library all day long. He was such a fantastic artist; he could copy all the Latin manuscripts like forgeries, the Hebrew and everything, onto parchment. And at night he would bring me all these things. He had one gesture when leaving: he stooped down and kissed my feet. Man, I was ready to take his teeth out! He says, “My master!” My family adopted him. My father, my mother bought all his cameras, paid for all his film courses in New York. Mostly Jewish people supported Harry Smith.’

In 1952 Ziprin and Joanna invited Smith to the annual Lag Ba’Omer party thrown by Ziprin’s grandfather, the Reb Abulafia, in Manhattan’s Clinton Hall. It was held in honour of the second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) of Safed, the Israeli holy city where Lionel’s grandfather was also born. Rashbi is, of course, the author of the Zohar and the most renowned Kabbalist in history. Along with his son Elazar, he hid in a cave for thirteen years, after the Rabbi Akiva, his teacher, and 24,000 of Akiva’s students were tortured and killed by the Romans. ‘So every year, on Lag B’omer, the thirtieth day after the second day of Passover, hundreds of thousands of people, from all over the world - mainly Sephardic Jews from the Arab countries - travel there, to dance on the night of his departure. And it was in this cave, that my grandfather went to see, that all his revelations about Kabbala came to him. So since my grandfather was in America, on Lag B’omer night he would rent Clinton Hall, a few hundred people would gather, and my grandfather would sing all these Kabbalistic songs all night long. I remember it since I was a child. I thought that my grandfather was an incarnation of Shimon bar Yochai, but I never said that to him or to anybody.’

Abulafia’s singing, ‘a wonderful goulash of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Arabic flavours’, according to Jewish folklorist Yale Strom, made an immediate impression on Smith. ‘Harry came and was astonished at the whole thing. He recorded all this, my grandfather singing. As we were leaving the party at 3 in the morning, my grandfather wondered: Who is this fellow? He looked very Jewish; he’s very hunchbacked, thick glasses, and dying of starvation, since he only eats yogurt because he thinks everyone’s poisoning him. Harry’s carrying the little tape recorder, so my grandfather asks him in Yiddish, “What is this?” Harry speaks no Yiddish, my grandfather speaks no English. So I said, “This is a tape recorder.” Harry gets the idea. My grandfather hears his voice on this little machine. He can’t believe this! Magic! So Harry says, maybe we can arrange for me to record him, and he spent lots of money on tape and on all these machines.’

Two years later, Abulafia gave Harry Smith $35,000 to set up a recording studio in his yeshiva, the Home of the Sages of Israel, where, in his characteristically obsessive style, he recorded the rabbi every day for almost two years. The sessions yielded 15 different vinyl LPs: eight of the rabbi telling stories in Yiddish, seven of him singing liturgical songs in Hebrew. ‘Authentic, you don’t hear that stuff.’ With Lionel’s encouragement, Smith showed Abulafia his films, abstract films, colour studies. My grandfather got up, and sighed, “From another world.” Another time he says: “Harry was Jewish in another lifetime.”’

A thousand copies of each LP were produced, 15,000 in total, of which approximately 300 survive. One of the albums was distributed by Folkways, a label that was later bought by the Smithsonian. Abulafia signed a contract, but, shocked by how little he would receive in royalties, ended the collaboration. Soon after he died, through a combination of family arguments and a lack of awareness of their value, most of the records were destroyed in a basement flood.

Around this time Ziprin and Joanna started a greeting card company, Ink Weed Arts, employing Smith, as well as future experimental filmmakers Bruce Connor and Jordan Belson. Lionel and Smith designed unique 3-D cards, based on hand-drawn images of the Tree of Life. In a 1973 interview with Paul Cummings for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, Connor is candid about the quixotic nature of the Ziprin’s commercial enterprise:

When I came here to New York I think in ‘51 or ‘52 I met Lionel and Joan Ziprin. I designed some greeting cards for them. At that time they were making what we call ‘studio’ cards. Harry Smith was designing three-dimensional Christmas cards. They were satirical, with a little bit of black humour, and totally unpopular. They were called Ink Weed Studios. They were totally disorganized as business people. They were not a business. They were very much involved in Kabbala and magic theory, and Tibetan mysticism as well. Harry Smith was very much involved in that. They would tell me stories, fantasies. Lionel gave me a book of Kabbala that was all in Hebrew. I could not read it, but he said it was good for me and it was good luck to have. And it has a mandala image in it.

This was also the period when Ziprin wrote Songs for Schizoid Siblings, a collection of zany children’s poems based on both Mother Goose rhymes and the teachings of the Kabbala.

In the late fifties, Ziprin’s lectures on the Zohar, organized and hosted by the beat photographer and poet Ira Cohen, fed the chronic beat thirst for mystical revelation.

No less surprising was Lionel’s unlikely association with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the century, particularly Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. ‘I had four children already, living in a basement on 7th Street and I had a kosher house, and Joanna has become the hostess with the mostest, she’s keeping a free kitchen. When she wakes up 3 o’clock in the morning she starts cooking and all the birds come. Thelonious Monk would come to my house between sets. He was at the Five Spot and I was living on 7th Street. Where does he go between sets? Comes to Lionel’s house, sits in the rocker! He’d come in the door - we lived in the basement, the Magic Basement. And he comes in the threshold of the door, the mezuzah on the door - he at least noticed it - and on the threshold, he’d do the hucklebuck. Then he’d come in, and sit on the rocker. The kids smelled his atmosphere, and they went: Oh, oh, Thelonious! And they’d climb on him. He was smiling, he never much talked, nothing to say. We went every night to Birdland; but not Friday night, not shabbos night. They knew I was Jewish, I had a beard, just a short beard. I told my Zaide, he’s like a great teacher, Charlie Parker.’

But the project which occupies Ziprin now is the Harry Smith recordings of the Reb Abulafia. Shortly before his grandfather’s death in 1955, Lionel promised his grandfather that the recordings would not be lost or forgotten and that his grandfather’s music would be made available to the world – a promise that, even at 82, Ziprin has every intention of keeping.

‘I need a little money to finish the liner notes, do the graphic designs. For the liner notes I need some scholarly people. I’m beginning to meet them. Just the other day, I had the world’s most highly paid cantor here.’

Indeed, the Rebbe Abulafia remains very much alive for his grandson, who regularly walks the short distance to Bialystocker Street, to the current incarnation of his grandfather’s schule, the House of Sages, a home and yeshiva for retired rabbis that Abulafia helped found in the early 1930s with Rabbi Shmuel Aaron Rubin, who became the famed ‘Radio Rabbi’ presiding over ‘the Court of the Air’ (a Jewish mediation board that broadcast its sessions over Yiddish radio stations from the mid-thirties to 1956).

‘It was on Henry Street, and Rubin insisted that they don’t sleep there, he didn’t want the expense of having to get OKs from the housing department and the buildings department. And my grandfather said No, this has to be a home for them, a home. They don’t fit anywhere, and their children are already American. You know, progress: cut the beard, become a lawyer, a doctor, go to college, get a good job, money. So where are they gonna to spend their old age? In a nursing home? They’ll die. Where are they going to go at night?

Finally he couldn’t get along with Rubin, and they broke up. He said: You keep this and I’ll go. So he went and he started the Home of the Sages of Israel on East Broadway, which is what he wanted.’

The Rebbe Abulafia died in 1955 when the city began knocking down the Home of the Sages of Israel to build the housing projects his grandson now lives in. ‘When he saw the steel ball on the chain, he lost his mind, it killed him; he died before his time. Then there was no money left to build the synagogue, crooks came and stole the two million dollars of city compensation for the home. So my grandfather wasn’t here and the city didn’t want to start lawsuits against rabbis. Finally the Satmar came. They’re smart. They bought the site and they have it to this day; they made a gold mine out of it. It’s a modern building and the top floor is a secular nursing home, it’s Jewish and it’s other religions, otherwise the government won’t give you money. It’s very spic and span – it’s too clean for a synagogue! And downstairs - the learning goes on.’

There are still visions. He still sees angels. ‘I see them still occasionally, not so much anymore. It’s no big thing; it’s only another species. God created all these things; fish, insects, monkeys, parrots, birds. Angels are one more species, there are different kinds of angels just like there are different kind of people, different kinds of fish, different kinds of animals, there’s a species called angels.’

Lionel believes he had a brief encounter with the Angel of Death while waiting around for some test results recently at Bellevue Hospital. ‘He was in dirty clothes, he looked around the age of 70 or 80; I couldn’t tell whether He was Hispanic, Black or Chinese. He was walking – I always look when I see an angel at the shoes, to see if there is any space, even a quarter of an inch between the bottom of the shoe and the floor, you know? And I see him coming towards me, and I’m waiting for a guy to come, if he can ever find the cab to go home at 5 o’clock, and the Angel of Death is coming closer and I say: Well, I have to sign these papers, I got them in my hand, right? It’s coming towards me, the picture’s getting more complete, it’s not the first time I’ve seen an angel, right? I don’t want to look at it; I turn my face the other way, you know, to the door, looking out so I don’t have to see it. It’s going to pass; I don’t know what it’s going to say. So it passes about six inches from me, it doesn’t stop and as it passes it says . . . “Zay gezunt” [Yiddish for “Stay well” or “Goodbye”]. I had no idea! “Zay gezunt”? It says “Zay gezunt”.

Its face is like, maybe it’s smoke, it’s not clear, I don’t know if other people see this, it is not an apparition. Why should it be an apparition?’ Lionel asks, a smile on his face, an impish twinkle in his eyes. ‘If it’s an angel, it’s an angel! It’s a real thing - isn’t that wonderful?’

David Katz has written for a variety of publications, including High Times, East Side Review, Rap Express and Girls Over 40. He lives in Manhattan.

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