A Beatnik Finds Treasure In His Grandfather’s Beats


By Jon Kalish

Published January 27, 2006, issue of January 27, 2006.
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A Manhattan record label and a Minnesota distributor/publisher of spoken word audio, including books and radio programs, are among the companies that have expressed interest in a rare collection of Jewish liturgical recordings made in the 1950s, much to the relief of Lionel Ziprin, who has been trying to get the recordings out in the world for some 50 years. The records were part of a set of 15 LPs that Ziprin’s grandfather, Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, recorded in a Lower East Side yeshiva over a period of two years with renowned ethnomusicologist Harry Smith.

“I don’t want to get too elated,” 81-year-old Ziprin said of his interest in the recordings. “I’m too weak for that.”

A former beatnik poet with a fondness for amphetamines, Ziprin now spends most of his time studying at a Lower East Side yeshiva with elderly Hasids or in his bedroom — which is cluttered with pulmonary life-support equipment.

Over the past month, he has been hearing from long-lost friends, music professors and record executives following a New Year’s Day report on National Public Radio about his long, tortured quest to release Abulafia’s recordings. One thousand copies of the 15-LP set were machine pressed shortly before the rabbi passed away in 1955. Ziprin said that his mother and uncle barred him from distributing them at the time, and over the years most of the records were lost to fire, flood or thieves. But he managed to salvage a full set and to have them digitized.

Following the NPR broadcast, musician John Zorn — whose Tzadik label has released a long list of eclectic Jewish music — visited Ziprin at his Lower East Side home. Soon afterward, Zorn expressed confidence that a deal would be imminent. But Ziprin has also heard from the owner of a small record label in Los Angeles that specializes in esoteric recordings. And he spoke to a radio host in Oregon with connections to the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music and a Jewish music professor in the Boston area who has offered to help with the project.

Despite the suitors, Ziprin is nowhere near a final decision. On one day he says he will likely go with the offer from Tzadik, but the next day he suggests that Deutsche Grammophon would be a desirable entity to distribute the records.

“I think my grandfather’s voice is better than Caruso’s!” Ziprin declared in all seriousness. “And I’m not putting Caruso down. He was a great artist.”

“Lionel can be cantankerous and difficult,” observed Ira Cohen, a longtime friend of Ziprin’s. “He tends to make things as complicated as possible, so nobody can talk to him.”

Cohen has known Ziprin since the 1960s, when Ziprin had one foot firmly planted in New York’s counter-cultural scene. Ziprin insists that Bob Dylan once visited him and brought along a man named Louis Abolafia, a 1968 hippie presidential candidate who appeared naked in posters with the slogan “What have I got to hide?”

Ziprin’s grandfather’s surname, Abulafia, is prominent in Jewish mysticism. Ziprin says that his family has a long history in Safed, Israel, which has been a center of Kabbalah as far back as the 16th century.

Ziprin said that, regardless of his colorful past, he has always been an Orthodox Jew and a strict observer of the Sabbath. He will demand that whoever releases Abulafia’s recordings abstain from selling them on the Sabbath.

Jon Kalish’s radio documentary on Lionel Ziprin and is grandfather’s recordings can be heard at www.kcrw.org.

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