A Grandson's Quest to Preserve His Jewish Heritage Lionel Ziprin is running out of time to make good on his promise to share his grandfather's traditional Jewish music with the world. Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia was recored by famed ethnomusicologist Harry Smith in the 1950s.

A Grandson's Quest to Preserve His Jewish Heritage

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Now a puzzle of a different sort: the conundrum that is Lionel Ziprin. The 81-year-old Orthodox Jew is on a mission to get recordings his grandfather made in the 1950s out into the world.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rabbi NAFTALI ZVI MARGOLIES ABULAFIA: (Singing in Hebrew)

HANSEN: Ziprin's grandfather, a rabbi on New York's Lower East Side, was recorded by the legendary ethnomusicologist Harry Smith. But these recordings have languished for half a century and, as Jon Kalish reports, Lionel Ziprin is running out of time.

JON KALISH reporting:

Lionel Ziprin lives in a Lower East Side apartment, a warren of books, stacks of old newspapers and family photographs.

Mr. ZIPRIN: You know, you can't see anything...

KALISH: His bedroom is a jumble of wires and hoses connected to medical equipment.

Mr. ZIPRIN: I'm on oxygen, Jon. I'm on artificial life support, pulmonary, 21 hours of the day. And the doctor says, `If you don't keep this up, you won't live. This is what's keeping you alive.' I'm like a walking pharmaceutical depository, 128 pills a week. What do you want from me?

KALISH: Back in the 1960s, Ziprin was a beatnik poet with a fondness for amphetamines, which, he is quick to point out, were illegal at the time. Ziprin became friends with another eccentric, Harry Smith. The filmmaker and ethnomusicologist is best known today for compiling the "Anthology of American Folk Music," a six-LP set credited with helping to launch the folk revival of the 1960s. Smith practically lived in Ziprin's apartment.

Mr. ZIPRIN: My mother bought his cameras, bought his projectors, bought everything, and he became like a ward of the family. 'Cause Harry looked like a little old Jewish man. He was bent over, right? He was practically blind. He had thick glasses, right? He was a scholar. Harry could talk about anything. He had, like, a brain attached to a data bank on another planet, and he could talk about anything.

KALISH: And he did. In an interview in the 1970s with friend Debbie Freeman, the conversation ranged from fantasy dinner guests to philosophy to human behavior.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. HARRY SMITH (Ethnomusicologist): I cannot go into the recent experiments at Brookhaven Laboratory, where they've been able to separate the spectra of matter and antimatter, but they are fundamental to the notions of happiness and unhappiness.

KALISH: One day in the early 1950s, Harry Smith met Lionel Ziprin's grandfather. Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia was a prominent orthodox rabbi and a living repository of sacred Jewish music dating back centuries.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rabbi ABULAFIA: (Singing in Hebrew)

KALISH: After hearing Rabbi Abulafia sing, Smith set up a studio in the rabbi's synagogue to record him. Lionel Ziprin says he has no idea how the two communicated. His grandfather didn't speak English, and Smith didn't speak Yiddish, but the pair were together almost every day for about two years.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rabbi ABULAFIA: (Singing in Hebrew)

Mr. ZIPRIN: Harry would go there afternoons or evenings to spend time with him, and somehow or other, during these recordings--I went a few times. I saw--the whole walls looked like a recording studio. But after a while, a year or more, I feel my grandfather's getting irritated by the whole thing, you know? Harry's doing a whole number, and it's not exactly the atmosphere my grandfather would appreciate in his study, right?

KALISH: So he kicked Smith out, but not before they recorded hundreds of hours of prayers and songs.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rabbi ABULAFIA: (Singing in Hebrew)

KALISH: Out of the recordings, Rabbi Abulafia had a 15-LP set pressed and packaged in a loose-leaflike binder. The rabbi shelled out $35,000, a hefty sum back in 1954, to press a thousand copies of the set. Folkways Records even released a single disc commercially. But in early 1955, Rabbi Abulafia passed away. Ziprin says that a few days before his grandfather died, the rabbi instructed him to make sure that all of the music got out into the world. But Ziprin says his mother and uncle got in the way.

Mr. ZIPRIN: The family said I can't use them; wouldn't let me distribute them. I said, `But this is what Jaida(ph) said. He wanted to distribute--what do you mean?' They said, `Well, it's sacred music. It's not going to be played on 14th Street, your grandfather's voice booming from some record store on 14th Street.' I said, `No, it's going to go to ethnic collections, universities.'

KALISH: It didn't. In fact, almost all of the thousand sets that Rabbi Abulafia had pressed were damaged in storage or disappeared. Decades passed. Then, in the late 1990s, there were a handful of stories in newspapers and on NPR, and Lionel Ziprin began to receive offers for his grandfather's recordings. One came from a wealthy businessman in California. Another came from composer and musician John Zorn, whose Tzadik label has issued a long list of eclectic Jewish music.

Mr. ZIPRIN: John Zorn--yeah, he came, he wanted to bring them out, and I think there was two CDs, $5,000 apiece. But he said the masters will belong to him forever, in perpetuity. So I said, `I can't.'

KALISH: None of the offers panned out. Part of it had to do with Ziprin, says 70-year-old poet and photographer Ira Cohen. Cohen has been a close friend of Ziprin's since the 1960s and even offered his own help in putting out the records.

Mr. IRA COHEN (Poet, Photographer): Lionel could always create situations involving lawyers and, you know, wills and litigious things and whatever. He can be cantankerous and difficult. It just may be too, too, crazy. So I would just give up. We never had any fights about it, but I think that even when Lionel is wrong, he's right. I mean, he has the right to be wrong because it's not something that you can sell, like white bread.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rabbi ABULAFIA: (Singing in Hebrew)

KALISH: Right now Lionel Ziprin has no offers for his grandfather's recordings. In fact, he was worried he might not even have the digital copies that were made of them.

Mr. ZIPRIN: Huh. Wait, there's a flashlight in the top drawer...

KALISH: After a recent hospital stay, he returned to his apartment to find his children tidying up. He fretted for months, physically unable to dig through the stacks of boxes, so I offered to help him search.

Mr. ZIPRIN: Stick your head in here. See this box?

KALISH: OK. OK.

Mr. ZIPRIN: Careful.

KALISH: OK. I got it. I got it.

Mr. ZIPRIN: Got it?

KALISH: It looks like a case of...

(Soundbite of case being opened)

Mr. ZIPRIN: Wow! I was afraid to look. This is great news. I mean, this is the best news the world has heard in years, right?

KALISH: But it may be years still until the world gets to hear Rabbi Abulafia's voice, and only if Lionel Ziprin can hang on. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rabbi ABULAFIA: (Singing in Hebrew)

HANSEN: You can find a link to Jon Kalish's half-hour documentary on the rabbi's music at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rabbi ABULAFIA: (Singing in Hebrew)

HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(Credits)

HANSEN: Happy new year. I'm Liane Hansen.

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