Passover in Prison
What it's like to observe a ritual celebrating escape and hope among murderers, anti-Semites, and faux converts just looking for a holiday gift box.
A close-up of matzah. Photo via Flickr user John Lodder
For denizens of America's prison-industrial complex, Passover has a natural appeal.
After all, Pesach—as Passover is also called—celebrates liberation from captivity. The ritual meal's customs refer to the time when the Jews fled Egypt for Israel. That's why every holiday feast, or Seder, traditionally ends with: "Next year in Jerusalem!"
The message was always inspiring, but shouting out the phrase was bittersweet until the tenth and final Passover I spent behind bars. A visit to the Holy Land was unlikely for the New York State prisoners I shared the occasion with. For some, it was ruled out unless they defeated death. (Thanks to parole, I still can't go myself until 2019.)
But celebrating what was essentially a religious prison escape right under the cops' noses was always a thrill. As the story goes, the Egyptian Pharaoh kept vacillating about letting his slaves go. He wasn't sure even after the Angel of Death took the first-born sons from every home unmarked with a red smear of blood (warned by Moses, the Jews were passed over by the death-dealer—thus the name of the holiday).
The Pharaoh decided to let the Jews go after that atrocity, but they were still baking bread for the journey when word came that the mercurial tyrant had changed his mind again. The rushed tribe took its bread unleavened, which is why normal loaves aren't allowed during the holiday. Orthodox Jews keep a special set of flatware, never touched by chometz (leavened foods) for Pesach.
In prison, we made do with paper plates.
Unlike the Jews of yore, I was neither an innocent captive nor forced to labor. My Pharaoh was a monkey on my back, and most prisoners had one of their own. I didn't erect any monuments while a ward of New York's Department of Corrections, instead mostly working white-collar jobs in the 12 facilities I passed through. Four times, I served as a chaplain's Clerk. The pay was level four, as high as it gets at a quarter a day. The rabbis—employed by the state to minister to a questionable congregation of almost entirely "self-declared" Jews—took me on to manage their affairs. They ignored my obvious lack of orthodoxy, the paucity of faith I never tried to conceal, and my fondness for ham and swiss. I made up for those deficits with quick typing and other abilities.
For example, I could conduct a Seder.
Every Passover, Ethiopian Jews with felonies seemed to flood the New York prison system, discovering their true origins just in time for the annual gift boxes. By Ramadan, many of the same convicts were Muslim.
Last year, New York State had roughly 54,000 state prisoners, and before my release I was one of the approximately 1,500 who kept kosher. In private, the rabbis recognized only 10 percent or so of that number as real Jews. The rest were inmates seeking a kosher diet and rarely satisfying the Orthodox requirement of having a Jewish mother. The food wasn't worth it, but the cold cuts and cheese were sealed and therefore easy to sell. Since many of these faux Jews were African American, I heard lots of claims invoking Ethiopia, where a community of roughly 40,000 Jews maintained their religion despite being forgotten and isolated from the rest of the diaspora for millennia.
Every Passover, Ethiopian Jews with felonies seemed to flood the New York prison system, discovering their true origins just in time for the annual gift boxes. By Ramadan, many of the same convicts were Muslim. This meant paperwork for clerks like me—processing a bevy of applications for religion changes. (During my last year inside, Albany restricted changes of faith with a new policy. Now you can only change annually, and not at all if you're in the box—solitary confinement.) Bouncing between Jewish (for the Passover gift box) and Muslim (for the nighttime Ramadan food) particularly irritated our overlords. But complaining about it gave the state-employed imams and rabbis something in common as they carefully avoided talking about the Middle East.
Not one of the "Jewish" inmates ever convinced me that they had a legit Ethopian background, although I did meet gentiles with origins in that country. They made mistakes while inventing their backstories—an applicant insisted he was the product of a brief romance between an Ethiopian Jew and his Black Panther mother during her visit to Africa, fumbling which parent had to be Jewish. The rabbis were legally obliged to accept any prisoner who declared himself a member of the tribe, but you can't choose to be Chosen—the rabbis communicated to each other with little notations in Yiddish about who was "self-declared" and who was legit. Some of the fakery was fun, though—one guy was on his way to getting a kosher diet until he earnestly expressed a desire to celebrate Passover by "breaking bread with my Jewish brothers."
Preparations for Pesach went beyond cleaning: We used a blowtorch inside the oven to destroy any leavened particles. I went as far as to ritually "sell" my chometz to Rabbi Spritzer of Reaching Out. The Chabad organization takes care of incarcerated Jews; they never forgot to send me an authorization form for this allegorical sale. I only felt the gravity of the proscription when I witnessed the rabbi I worked for physically recoil from a salt shaker that may have been polluted by a crumb of something leavened. He wouldn't have jumped as far if there had been a knife in my hand; he cared more for his spiritual self than his corporal one.
My duties encompassed the distribution of the rare free lunch in a place where everything and everyone was for sale. Not a year passed that I wasn't rumored to skim off the top, and the amounts of canned gefilte fish I stacked in my cell after each Passover bolstered these accusations. In reality, I bought up enough to eat a can a week for a year, since the despised fish-in-jelly went for only a single stamp. That's 52 cans for about $20—a real bargain!
The few Ashkenazi Jews (our Israelis were all Sephardic) like me relished our gefilte fish, along with the packets of horseradish that came in the boxes. Everyone else hated the slimy dish, but no one wanted to waste the protein. Instead, they tried to modify it. The Hispanic population filled pastelitos with it. Having tried the fried patties filled with Central European–style ground whitefish, but still spiced the Caribbean way, I can say it wasn't altogether terrible. Less successful was another attempt to repurpose it: Some "Jews" deep-fried it, but the gefilte fish never held together.
Many of the men taking advantage of the rabbis' kindness and generosity to incarcerated Jews were anti-Semites.
Macaroons were the most prized of the Passover bounty, and there was fierce trade in them. The holiday boxes also included cans of tuna and cheap chocolates, as well as yarmulkes and a Haggadah (Seder guidelines—we received the pared-down ritual rather than the six-hour version).
Many of the men taking advantage of the rabbis' kindness and generosity to incarcerated Jews were anti-Semites. Without any real experience with Hebrews, they imagined us to be exotic creatures with horns and Rothschild money. Everyone "knew" that we ran the media and didn't go to work on 9/11, but the fact that Jesus Christ was a Jew shocked and insulted the white supremacists and Islamic radicals I spoke with. Their anti-Semitism was not informed, but rather inherited and mixed-up. The white supremacists knew they were supposed to hate Jews, but didn't know why. They applauded the Nazis for their ethnic cleansing, but denied the Holocaust ever happened.
I had few problems with these inmates as I was not considered to be Jewish—either because I wasn't Hasidic, or because I wasn't cheap, or because they didn't know what they were talking about. But it wasn't pretty. The boxes of matzah were universally called "Jew crackers," and during negotiations, accusations of "Jewing down" a price didn't raise an eyebrow. In my old life, I knew the best Jewish jokes, but I never told them inside, despite an eager audience. I didn't want to encourage an anti-Semitism that seemed almost instinctual—in some cases I was the first Jewish person these guys had ever met. And I'm not just talking about the inmates; the staff wasn't overly fond of Jews, either, despite the overtime they got on our holidays.
Since Seders must begin at sundown, they were never conducted by an actual rabbi. Orthodox Sabbath rules apply on holy days, and driving is a forbidden activity (the rationale being the prohibition on lighting fires—internal combustion engines have spark plugs). Rabbis would have had to sleep over in prison to perform the ritual. In later years I conducted Seders as a clerk, but my first four were spent in Greenhaven Correctional Facility, where we had a gabbai—a rabbi's stand-in, a position usually held by a young man aspiring to greater title.
The rituals he performed for us were correct to the last prayer, even though he had the finest pornographic library in the prison.
In the Orthodox program at Greenhaven, I watched a murderer and Hasidic Jew named Phil rule over the ritual table for four Seders.
Phil was serving 50 to life, sentenced to 25 years for each life he was found guilty of ending with a gunshot in 1980. He read Hebrew melodically and knew all the rituals from a Brooklyn childhood spent in yeshivas. The rabbi loved having someone so well versed to serve as his replacement; Phil had been doing it for decades. The rituals he performed for us were correct to the last prayer, even though he had the finest pornographic library in the prison. (Phil kept the entire run of Buttman in his cell, thanks to an expensive subscription. Our rabbi knew this, but who else could he chat with in Yiddish?)
I paid careful attention and kept my atheism private.
Phil discouraged gentiles from attending by making sure the food was not released until the prescribed time in the ceremony. We could only eat after the traditional four questions had been asked and every other Pesach custom done. We sang the songs and hid the matzah—something the guards keeping watch always found suspicious.
After four years there, I spent my remaining six incarcerated Passovers in other prisons, leading services in several of them. In time, I developed my own technique; instead of forcing the unwilling to sit through a ritual they cared nothing for, I always offered the men an option of eating immediately and leaving. That usually left a kernel of three or four Jews and wannabes going through the Haggadah with me.
Some prisons had more Jews than others, but at one Seder I ran, there were enough participants for a minyan, or the ten adults needed for certain prayers. (A Torah can stand in for one—even if a woman cannot.) All of the men were African American, and none were from Ethiopia. I figured it was going to be a short night, and offered my usual eat first and pray later deal. To my astonishment, everyone wanted to stay—they had heard I was a good storyteller. And so I went through with our Seder.
I'll never forget the asking of the four questions that Passover. The youngest person at the table has to do it, and slowly reading out the words with care and effort, a kid I knew to rank high as a Blood pronounced most of them correctly.
I was methodically queried by the 19-year-old GED student named Romance Jones. He wanted to know the answers, never having heard them before.
I swallowed my Jew cracker in silent admiration.
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