The president of the New York Tattoo Society is an unlikely figure to launch what may be the most ambitious publishing venture ever to cover the Jewish Lower East Side. Clayton Patterson, a non-Jew whose long beard could be mistaken for that of a biblical patriarch, is the editor of the three-volume “Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side,” a project now nearing completion.
Patterson, who has been a fixture of the neighborhood since moving to New York City in 1979, has been working on the book since 2005. While the Lower East Side is known for having been home to millions of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, his book focuses on the life of the neighborhood after most of those immigrants left, and on the effects of recent gentrification.
“The genius of most of America was attached to cheap rent and an inexpensive lifestyle,” Patterson told the Forward on a rainy Thursday afternoon. “Whether it be Madonna or Jackson Pollock or Jimi Hendrix or Rabbi Moshe Feinstein — all of these people were able to develop their ideas and their theories and their work because they had the time to deal with it. At $3,000 a month, you just don’t have time to grow and develop.”
In Patterson’s sprawling and raucous 1,300-odd pages, Feinstein and other legendary Jewish figures rub shoulders with lesser-known characters. Someone looking for Allen Ginsberg might stumble upon Lionel Ziprin, a poet who studied the Zohar, fell in love with the same woman as Marlon Brando, entertained Thelonius Monk, received a flattering letter from T.S. Eliot and was the grandson of mystic rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia. Ziprin’s friend was musicologist Harry Smith, best known for his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, who donated the world’s largest paper airplane collection to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
A still unknown Philip Glass is described as directing movers to carry musical equipment to and from his sixth-floor walk-up. Educational Alliance students, like sculptor Louise Nevelson and artist Ben Shahn, make cameo appearances, as do film titans Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, on their way to transforming American popular culture.
“I’m not sure if most Jews are aware of how diverse the Jews are,” Patterson said of the characters that fill his history. “Individuals who came through here changed the history of America countless times.”
Though Patterson finished compiling most of the book’s content in 2007, he has been trying to raise money for its design, printing and distribution. In November 2011 he succeeded in netting $13,000 from 72 backers by using the fundraising website Kickstarter.com, and now he is in negotiations with printers to produce the work. He hopes to have it completed in the next couple of months.
Patterson distinguishes his project from the landmark book “World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made,” published in 1976. He said that the work, by Irving Howe with principal researcher Kenneth Libo, had a narrative point of view, while his own volumes allow more recent voices to speak for themselves. And speak they do: In about 160 essays, artists, rabbis and writers cover subjects ranging from shtieblekh to the shvitz.