Lionel Ziprin 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.
Lionel’s grandfather Rabbi Abulafia singing was recorded in the ’50s by pioneering musicologist Harry Smith (himself a 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. Rabbi Abulafia’s recordings were celebrated in an article by John Kalish.
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 “Visions of Johanna”. The couple had four children.
Lionel was a poet, an adviser, a comic book writer, a greeting card maker and 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 dichotomy of Lionel’s religious convictions paired with his past bohemian lifestyle gave him a unique language. It may have been what made his fantastic world so understandable and vibrant. 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.
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.”
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. With his passing, lost is a bridge that connected the physical world we all believe we live in with a unique metaphysical world that Lionel had just introduced me and perhaps so many others to. Lionel was the translator of the Orthodox, a teacher of mystical thought and intention and a wonderful person with whom to have a long conversation.