Lionel Ziprin, “Mystic of the Lower East Side”, was an extraordinary character. William Grimes‘ March 2009 obituary in The New York Times is a must-read: “For decades, Mr. Ziprin, a self-created planet, exerted a powerful gravitational attraction for poets, artists, experimental filmmakers, would-be philosophers and spiritual seekers”, he writes. Poet and long-time friend, Ira Cohen is quoted, “He was larger than life and so far beyond a certain kind of description that I am bamboozled..He was much larger than a poet…He was one of the big secret heroes of the time.” “He combined Old World mysticism and New World craziness.”, declares poet Janine Pommy Vega, “He really was one of the great white magicians of the era.”
Philip Smith, in a 2014 article in Frieze – “There are certain types of figures that are more amenable to historiography, but these guys” – (Lionel Ziprin and the legendary Harry Smith is who he’s talking about here) – “are really hard to pin down. In fact, when you pin them down you’re almost spoiling the sample. It’s like a quantum art history – if you’re observing them, you can’t figure out both their position and velocity at the same time”, (“polymath(s) so prodigious”, as the author of the article, Andy Battaglia describes it, “that any attempts at classification quickly turn to farce.”)
Lionel and Harry – The meeting was for both of them a profound and engrossing one.
As Ziprin himself describes it – (It was 1952, the day following his marriage) – “I had my wedding in my grandfather (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia)’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”
“‘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.”
What connected Lionel and Harry was not just shared esoteric interests but Lionel’s grandfather, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia. Rabbi Abulafia wasn’t just any rabbi. He was a living storehouse of Jewish liturgical music dating back centuries. (The name Abulafia has a long and rich history stretching to 13th-century Spain and Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, one of the earliest Kabbalists).
Lionel again: “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. Harry came and was astonished at the whole thing. He recorded all this, my grandfather singing. As we were leaving the party at three 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.”
Katz takes up the tale – “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 fifteen different vinyl LPs – eight of the rabbi telling stories in Yiddish and 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, color 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 three hundred survive..Abulafia signed a contract, but, shocked by how little he would receive in royalties, ended the collaboration. Soon after he died (in 1955), through a combination of family arguments and a lack of awareness of their value, most of the records were destroyed in a basement flood.”
The legendary grail of the legendary Harry Smith. As John Strausbaugh wittily described them, “The Rabbi’s Basement Tapes”. Shortly, before his death in 2009, Lionel renewed his efforts to have the recordings properly released. Listen to him in Jon Kalish‘s award-winning 2006 documentary – here. (A transcript of the program can be found here)