After four years of blogging about Jewish life in Otisville I have decided to publish a book that chronicles Jewish daily life in Otisville as it existed in the years before COVID19. There once was a thriving Jewish criminal community, a shtetl located within the walls of the Federal Bureau of Prisons with everything necessary for a Jewish male to live a totally immersed Jewish life, excepting of course for procreation. 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.
I have completed a good chunk of my book with some literary assistance from an award winning Jewish fiction writer who works at a top University on the Left Coast, who contacted me and offered his assistance, as he is a big fan of my blog. Read the excerpt below, let me know what you think, and forward it to your uncle who owns a publishing house and ask him to send me a $10 million advance. If you don’t have an uncle in the publishing biz, please forward it to anyone you know who is in the publishing biz, as I am currently shopping around for a publisher. BARUCH HASHEM!
Shabbos was a major production at Otisville. There was a strict policy forbidding greens in shul on Shabbos. Greens were work clothes: at Shabbos services, you wore sweatpants and a white crewneck. I had a hard time with this at first—following rules made by other inmates. Weren’t these guys here because they didn’t follow the rules? But I remembered Officer Scalba’s advice, I didn’t want to cause trouble.
Chasidim, Israelis, Russians, even secular Jews came to services on Friday nights. I met guys with non-Jewish fathers and Jewish mothers, and guys with non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers. I met a Bukharian Jew who went by Roman. The Chasidim wore black gartels, ropes around their waists, and little rectangular black felt hats to symbolize the fedoras they’d have worn on the outside. The guards only let them wear those hats for Shabbos. The Chasidim looked like small, anguished train conductors.
The guards understood that this weekly ritual was something they’d be crazy to interfere with. During the week, we’d have to leave the chapel if it was time for the Count; on Shabbos, the guards let us stay put, and came to us. They’d walk between the aisles, joking about the Jews and their special treatment, or—if they really would’ve meant the jokes—keeping totally quiet, refusing to say a word to us. Some guys tried to joke with the guards on these nights. Some even offered them blessings, which they usually refused. Every once in a while, the guards joked about guys who were missing that night because they’d been tossed in solitary. Nobody ever really knew where they stood with anybody else.
But it really was a day—a night—of rest, and peace. There were still fights between inmates, but many fewer. I didn’t understand that my first Shabbos at Otisville. I was just as miserable as I’d been all week, only confused, now, too, at the way the other guys seemed not to notice the sheer humiliation of our circumstances. After a month or so, I started to understand. A man finds his level. A man gets used to anything. Your complaints and your miseries don’t mean anything until you’re accustomed enough to them to know them as a part of yourself. Only when the ache becomes routine do you begin to understand it well enough to hate it with meaning, and to live in relief from it even when it hasn’t gone anywhere.
After we convicts had taken our seats, and our grape juice had been poured, and we’d sung Shalom Aleichem, the tune that welcomes in the Shabbos angels—then it was time for kiddush, the sanctification of the wine and the evening. We were a cosmopolitan society at Otisville. An Orthodox Jew will have two ovens in his house, one for meats and one for dairy, just to ensure that a particle of one will never contaminate the other. But no matter how Orthodox, how frum you are, you don’t do two kiddushes. In prison, we had three.
For kiddush, you could take your pick between Rabbi Pinter, Rabbi Ben Haim, or Naftuli Schlesinger. Each of the three drank his grape juice from a silver cup; the rest of us had plastic. Pinter read for the Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of European descent. Pinter was in his sixties, long and thin as a treble clef. He was doing five years for mortgage fraud. Ben Haim was the Sephardi representative, Sephardim being, strictly speaking, the Jews of the Iberian peninsula, though he read for the Mizrahim too, the Jews of the Middle East. He was short, bald, and pale, with bright blue eyes incongruous in his face. Ben Haim was also doing five years: money laundering. But Schlesinger, 78-year-old Schlesinger, with his white hair like a thick fog on a Pennsylvania highway, read for the Satmars alone. The Satmar Chasidim are among the most exclusive of the Chasidic dynasties. They don’t fraternize with other Jews if they can avoid it. Schlesinger was the most distinguished of the three. He was doing fifteen years for fire insurance fraud.
Naftuli was the oldest Jew of them all. And a fussy bastard, too, getting into fights all the time—things had to be done a certain way, the Satmar way, and the Satmar way is very different, very particular. This tendency to granular, even neurotic observance is a central tradition for the Satmar Chasidim. The originator of their sect, a certain Rabbi Teitelbaum, used, as a child, to rise from prayers six or seven times to wash his hands. The Satmars say this is because he was so holy he could not stand the idea of being even slightly impure before Hashem. Probably my friends at Yale Medical School would have offered a different explanation for that behavior.
Though hand washing does have a religious significance for Jews, and that was the next part of the service. Once kiddush was made we went out to wash, the Rabbis permitted to go to the head of the line. This ritual, called Netilat Yadayim, has the devout Jew decanting water thrice on each of his hands from a special two-handled jug designated for that purpose. After that, one is not permitted to speak until he has tasted bread.
We began with the challah rolls. Then there was gefilte fish with horseradish, and hummus, made fresh in the kitchen. There was always enough to go around, but everybody cleaned his plate. After that, chicken soup. The soup had little shreds of meat in it, and bits of ramen-style noodles. Every once in a while, a matzah ball. It wasn’t much better than a Cup of Noodles, but it was not only chicken soup: it symbolized chicken soup. As a symbol, it was fine. It was steaming hot, best in the winter. I liked to dip my challah in it.
Then the main meal: farfel, fried chicken, kasha varnishkes, boiled carrots—whatever the guys in the kosher kitchen could get that week. We helped ourselves to seconds. The chapel was full of the rich, warm odor of garlic. We were full of onions. On Shabbos, at Otisville, in the twenty-first century, you could be mistaken for thinking you were in Odessa at the turn of the twentieth.
As we ate, Ben Haim, the Sephardic rabbi, gave a D’var Torah, a speech on the week’s Torah portion. Ben Haim used the Torah to answer the question of how one should live. The fact that he, too, was an inmate simultaneously helped the guys take him seriously and undercut him sometimes. He admitted to what he’d done; he said he regretted it. Still, who was Rabbi Ben Haim the money launderer to instruct us in the laundering of our souls?
Moshe Rabbeinu. Moses our teacher. Yaakov Avinu. Jacob our father. Dovid ha’Melekh. David the king… these men and others were the subjects of Ben Haim’s lectures, and hadn’t they, too, been guilty in their time? Hadn’t Moshe been prevented, by his disobedience, from setting foot in the Promised Land? Hadn’t Yaakov hoodwinked his own brother out of a birthright and his father out of a blessing? Hadn’t Dovid whacked his goomar’s (mistress’) husband when the poor bastard got inconvenient?
We ate; we listened. Ben Haim told shtetl stories he’d read in Ashkenazi books. As Ben Haim spoke dessert was brought out—cooked apples. The men poked the soft fruit with their plastic “sporks” and watched the sage speak. They were wondering, maybe, how to go about becoming more righteous men. Or they were wondering how to get their hands on Ben Haim’s silver cup…
Tune in, more excerpts to come...
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