David Katznelson (left) with Lionel Ziprin (date unknown)
A remembrance by David Katznelson
On the morning of Sunday March 15, 2009 Lionel Ziprin passed away. By nightfall, his coffin was riding on a plane to Israel, to be buried in Tsfad alongside his mother, grandmother and grandfather, the great Rabbi Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia. Tsfad was the home of the mystics, those Jewish spiritualists who dedicated their lives to the study of Kabbalah—the esoteric Jewish texts that were untouchable by most. The Abulafia family was one of the most famous families of Kabbalists.
I originally met Lionel because of his grandfather, a rabbi whose singing was recorded in the ’50s by pioneering musicologist Harry Smith (student of Alan Lomax and creator of the definitive collection of American folk music), because there were sacred melodies—bridging the gap of hundreds of years of cantorial practices—that were known best by him. I had read about Rabbi Abulafia’s recordings in an article by John Kalish, and contacted Lionel to license them for a non-profit Jewish reissue label I co-founded, The Idelsohn Society. Many before us had already tried to convince Lionel to allow the recordings to be released to the public; the recordings had become legendary for the very reason that Lionel refused all offers, other than allowing a single CD to be released, containing short bits of only a few masterpieces.
Four years ago my friend Roger Bennett and I started our trips down to Lionel’s apartment on the Lower East Side, situated in an island of olde Jewish culture that once flourished throughout the neighborhood. What started as skeptical conversations morphed into strange, deep discussions about Judaism, metaphysics, the otherworlds, and the angels that exist on this one.
Lionel was a born-again Hasidic Jew whose past was anchored in the artistic movements of the ’50s and ’60s. As a child he was plagued by epilepsy and rheumatic fever after which he had visions, seeing the bible come to life in his grandfather’s house. Later, he would translate these visions, along with his thoughts that came from them and his external worldly experiences, into his poetry. Ziprin as bohemian walked with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie “Bird” Parker, Allen Ginsberg, Bruce Conner, and SF poet laureate Jack Hirschman to name a few; his apartment was a destination for the greatest underground artists of his time. He married a woman named Johanna, so famous for her beauty that her vision was immortalized by Bob Dylan in song. The couple had four children.
Lionel was a poet, an adviser, a comic book writer, a greeting card maker and an underground film actor. He had no need for fame, releasing his poetry so violently and haphazardly that even in the age of the Internet it is almost impossible to find more than two of his works without a struggle.
To sit with Lionel and talk…talk of the speaking bird that flew into his window and stayed, or the latest project he was working on with the angels that helped Adam and Eve post-Paradise Lost, or the time an unknown powerful force physically drew him—pushed him—to a closed-down temple in the Lower East Side where his grandfather worshiped long ago, only to find inside a group of learned rabbis sitting, debating text, and to his astonishment they asked him to stay…when Lionel talked, his apartment dripped with mystical vuggam that only the great Isaac B. Singer could hope to conjure. He was one of the most interesting Jewish voices I had ever listened to.
The three of us, Roger, Lionel and myself, along with Ari the out-of-work cantor and Lionel’s home-help Mr. Hi, sat one day and listened to over nine hours of his grandfather’s recordings, with Lionel providing deep commentary along the way. Lionel discussed his vision for the release—detailing the content he wanted covered in the liner notes, the look of the design, and the steps we could take to ensure that stores would think twice about selling them on the Sabbath. (San Francisco’s Aquarius Records in a letter assured him they would honor this request.) He spoke about releasing a plain packaged version for the Orthodox and an ornate version for the general public, although he did not understand who in the general public would care. He saw these recordings as beacons of light for a dark time.
Listening to these recordings energized his bony bundle of flesh; we ended our day by dancing around his apartment, clapping and singing to one of the more spirited numbers whose chorus rhythmically chanted “LAMO LAMO LAMO.” Lionel declared the day a celebration of music that sparked the spiritual core, and decided to emphasize the moment by grabbing some HAPPY BIRTHDAY hats that he had lying amid his massive collection of black fedoras, throwing one on himself and giving the rest to us to wear. A sweet, unexpected ending to a day of listening to cantorial recordings!
The dichotomy of Lionel’s religious convictions and his infusion [integration?—Ed.] of his past bohemian lifestyle gave him a unique language. I think that is what made his fantastic world so understandable and vibrant to me. He walked a line of reality and fantasy as only a true mystic would, and more often than not stayed on that line for the entire conversation. He experimented with the ideas and substances of the world, thrived on going deep into the abyss of Jewish thought, and was lighthearted enough to laugh at himself after making a particularly strange yet appealing statement.
About a half a year ago Lionel took me into his bedroom, removed a few hundred-plus-year-old bibles from his desk, and handed me what was underneath them: his grandfather’s recordings. He also gave me an amulet that would light up if brought to temple on Yom Kippur. And he gave me a homework assignment: to listen closely to the recordings and curate an hour’s worth of selections that best showed off what his grandfather represented.
A daunting task.
It took me over three months of careful listening to compile the hour’s worth of material, and with shaky hands I ventured back to New York and to Lionel’s apartment for another listening session.
As was the custom with Lionel, he began the visit skeptically, slapping his hand on his armchair, saying and uttering a few morsels of genuine concern. But as we listened to the CD, and went from the first track to the second and then into the third, his expression lit up, and he relaxed. He complimented me on my hard but successful work. He held out his hand and said that he could see that these recordings had changed me for the good: my face looked different.
That was the last time I saw Lionel.
A few months later, I got the word that he was in the hospital not breathing on his own; he always had trouble with his breath since I had met him. Being 3,000 miles away and feeling helpless, I reacted by collecting and reading all of the Lionel Ziprin-penned works I could find, which included an amazing box set of poetry, and a record that Lionel was pushed to release in the early ’90s. To have his works in one place is to understand the true artistry of Lionel Ziprin, but to listen to him speak about the same subjects is to understand his true uniqueness.
As he writes in the poem Sentential Metaphrastic, 1965-1971:
“Existence inhibits, but does not inhibit me.
I am like a flame leaping from the side of one’s head.
Nothing inside is hidden.”
With his passing I have lost more than a friend. I have lost a bridge that connected the physical world I live in with a unique metaphysical world I had just learned existed. Lionel was the translator of the Orthodox, a teacher of mystical thought and intention and a wonderful person to have a long conversation with. I will miss him.
MORE ON LIONEL ZIPRIN FROM THE ARTHUR ARCHIVES: