I am currently working on publishing a book about Otisville, with the help of a creative writing genius who teaches at a top university on the Left Coast. This book will chronicle Jewish daily life in Otisville as it existed in the years before COVID19. There once was a thriving Jewish criminal community within the walls of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Sadly, this life no longer exists in Otisville. I feel I have a duty to write a book about the glory days, for historical and religious purposes and for the sake of posterity. Here is some material in the works:
The first night of Rosh HaShanah, we had a feast. Apples and honey, round challah, pomegranates, fish heads. Golden soup with eyelets of fat. A couple yeshivah bukhers visited with us when we’d finished eating, were relaxing in the candlelight, bellies full. They were sleeping on the prison grounds, in a trailer, to visit with Shalom Rubashkin, in the Medium. You remember Rubashkin. The slaughterhouse owner who was pardoned by Trump in 2017.
Inmate Ken Starr, who was incarcerated with us for ripping off real bigshots—Uma Thurman, Sylvester Stallone—loved chopping it up with these bukhers. The yeshivah students conveyed to us that Rubashkin was offering a minor bribe, a free meal, to any Jew in the Medium who would attend the shofar blowing the next day. Starr mocked the kids. He asked them—what’s the matter, you couldn’t get a post in Belize?
The Chabadniks are everywhere. A position in upstate was not a distinguished one. One of the bukhers told us he’d left his watch at home, out of fear that we’d steal it. Why would he say that? Nobody asked.
Starr told the bukhers he’d been a devout Jew, once upon a time. Everything had changed when he’d met a beautiful Roman Catholic girl, and married her. We didn’t know if Starr was talking about his first or his second wife. His second wife was a high-class stripper. The bukhers complimented Starr for his honesty, which was ironic, given what he was doing here—which was time.
After speaking with the youngsters, inmate Jack Chaz realized he was related to one of them. Starr laughed. He said he’d never admit to being related to one of these kids. Then he joked that we should beat them up. Take their clothes, walk out of the Camp. Everybody laughed. Almost everybody.
We spent the next day praying that our sins, our transgressions, our iniquities, our misdemeanors, felonies, and underlying acts in furtherance of conspiracy, be forgiven. Services were run by Glucksman, Youlus, and Moshe Butler, AKA Teaneck Trouble, the guy voted Most Likely to Return to Prison.
During services, Dr. Moss, the podiatrist, wouldn’t shut up about trying to find a Jewish mate on a Russian matchmaking website. Starr suggested a couple of women he knew from Hollywood. Oprah. Whoopie Goldberg. Whoopie’s name sounds Jewish, but she isn’t, Dr. Moss complained. Oh well. Moss’ loss.
The feds’ favorite holiday was Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, they saved money. They didn’t have to feed the Jewish prisoners. For our part, we did not love Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the devout Jew is forbidden both food and marital relations. Food was one of our only prison pleasures. As for marital relations—who needed reminding?
Yom Kippur services begin with the singing of a prayer called Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei is the Nullification of Vows. You ask God not to hold you to any promises you might make Him in the coming year, just in case you can’t follow through. This is a redundancy mechanism. It is a way to marginally reduce the odds of being whacked by the Lord.
Kol Nidrei happens, also, to be a piece of famously elegant liturgical music. On Yom Kippur, you are forbidden to eat, drink, wear leather, wash your hands past the knuckle, or enjoy marital relations. Liturgical music is your only permitted pleasure. And Kol Nidrei comes only once a year. Understandably, you want it to be good.
Two Jews were competing for the right to lead Kol Nidrei. First was Chaim Lebovits. Chaim was religious, complete with long peyos, big belly, yarmulke, and, on Shabbos, his train conductor cap. Art was not religious. Art had been raised Satmar but had ditched the whole thing. He shaved his beard and his head. He even waxed his betzim. He had donated his shtreimel to an Innuit. Art liked to sing, and he did it beautifully. Most of us favored Art. We thought he belonged on Broadway.
The Chasidim, however, thought of Art as a traitor. Naftuli Schlesinger most of all. Naftuli thought it was real fucking rich, that a kid like Art Freed, who’d turned his back on Satmardom, now had the gall to lead Kol Nidrei. Naftuli communicated to us all that it would be over his dead body that Art got that part. Somebody took Naftuli’s pulse. He was still alive.
But the vote went our way. Art led Kol Nidrei. At first, Naftuli and Rabbi Pinter threatened to boycott services. In the end, they succumbed. They davened Kol Nidrei with the rest of us. But, I heard—when Art led, they didn’t say amen. Naftuli and Pinter davened under protest. To break the fast, there was honey cake. We ate. We had been sealed, sentenced, for another year, to the Book of Life.
Tune in, more excerpts to come... If you know of any publishers interested in bidding for the rights to this book, let me know, commissions will be paid in the form of noodle kugels.
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