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Photo Finish: A New History of Lower East Side Jews, by an Unlikely Historian

June 15, 2012 5:23 pm Leave a comment By  | Via  
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The Jewish Daily Forward last week profiled the man behind an upcoming history of Jews in Manhattan’s Lower East Side — and pointed out that he’s not your average Jewish historian:

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 book itself is a kind of adventure through the neighborhood’s history, writes Gary Shapiro.

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.

Patterson credits the area’s previously cheap rent for its history of creativity — and worries that gentrification has extinguished that spark. “At $3,000 a month, you just don’t have time to grow and develop,” he explained.

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