After four years of blogging about 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 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 more material in the works:
There were a lot of rats in Otisville. Ratting got you into the Camp, and not the Medium. I was ratted on by the heads of the conspiracy in which I was entangled. Kind of a Whitey Bulger situation—you remember Whitey Bulger. Head of a crime family, and informant for the FBI. Lots of reasonable people take the opportunity to rat when it’s presented to them. If I’d had enough information to be useful to the feds, who knows—maybe I could’ve dodged Otisville altogether.
When guys turned up in the Camp who had ratting reputations, it wasn’t easy for them. Take inmate Alex Slider. Alex was a rat. He’d worked under Eliyahu Weinstein, a bigshot’s bigshot, a Madoff-like figure from Lakewood NJ, who recently got his 24 year prison sentence commuted by President Trump. Weinstein ran a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme and a real estate empire. Slider was his righthand man, but he only got a year and a day. I’d gotten just short of two years myself. So it was obvious that Slider was a rat. It didn’t help him that he was a tall guy who spoke with an English accent. Americans resent people who speak with English accents, especially the English ones. There is an Oedipal element involved. We think the English think they’re better than us. On the other hand, for their part, the English think—well, they think they’re better than us.
People called Alex all kinds of things. Sir Slider, King Slider, Lord Bentley. Prince Slider expected guys to attend to his every need. We didn’t want to. He was a rodent from green Albion. Ratting is complicated by the Jewish religion. Jewish law demands that violations, corruption and so forth be taken care of within the community. A Jew isn’t supposed to rat on another Jew to the authorities. This rule is called omerta in other cultures. Violation of omerta is known, in Hebrew, as mesirah.
Guys asked Slider—a religious guy, seen at chapel every Shabbos—how he came to break with halakhah by ratting. Slider explained that it was simple. He had spoken to his rabbi about it. He had received an indulgence, permission—called a heter. Slider’s rabbi told him that it was alright if he wanted to cooperate with the authorities.
At least three times a week, Slider received visits from his family. He had a beautiful wife and an abundance of beautiful daughters, all of them dressed and made-up exquisitely for every visit. Slider was a lucky man. No wonder he felt like a Sir, a King, a Lord. No wonder he felt he could do whatever he wanted.
I don’t know what Slider did to piss Rabbi Pinter off, but he did something. I heard that one day, at Pinter’s Talmud class, ie., the Daf, the two had a little showdown. I heard that Pinter kicked Slider out of the Daf for good. Beware an exiled king. These guys tend to go crazy.
In retaliation Slider stole Pinter’s gartel and religious books. Where he put them, I don’t know. What I do know was that Pinter saw himself as a role model. Pinter was an upstanding member of the community. He wasn’t a mesirahnik. He wasn’t going to rat out Slider to the guards, even if Slider, of all people, deserved it.
Instead Pinter had his 78 year old old friend Naftuli, AKA Zaidy, AKA the Depends Satmar, lift Slider’s fancy kiddush cup. Naftuli thought he was just helping out his buddy Pinter. But Naftuli hadn’t thought things out politically.
The kiddush cups were used on holidays and, more importantly, every Shabbos. And Shabbos, as I’ve said, was Mshulem’s domain. Mshulem’s and God’s. But Mshulem was the one you could actually have a conversation with. And Mshulem considered the theft of a kiddush cup, even if it was in just retaliation for the theft of a gartel, to be an infringement on his domain. That Shabbos, Mshulem halted everything. Before even the challah was served, he delivered a speech.
“Somebody in this room,” Mshulem proclaimed, “somebody in this room is a gonif. Okay, there are plenty of you. But somebody in this room has stolen Lord Bentley’s kiddush cup. Until Lord Bentley gets his cup back—no kiddush!”
The Russians started to go crazy right away. They swore to themselves and each other. “Blat,” the Russians said. I don’t know what blat means. But the Russians liked to say it when things weren’t going the way they wanted.
Naftuli stood his ground. Guys were hungry. A few guys snuck out and snuck back in with matzah. When Ari Glucksman, gabbai and Mshulem’s righthand man, saw what was happening, he yelled at the rule-breakers and took their matzah away from them.
Quiet in the chapel, except for the small, soft pops of Russians, saying blat.
Finally, someone exploded. It was Dr. Goldberg, from New Jersey. He got very angry. He stood on his chair. Dr. Goldberg said he was trying to grow in his Judaism. Prison threw up plenty of obstacles, but he was trying. Dr. Goldberg wanted to live, but Otisville killed him a hundred times a day. This childishness, he said, stunted his growth. It was not only a kiddush cup that was being withheld. It was Dr. Goldberg’s personal and spiritual development.
Zaidy gave in. He didn’t want to be an obstacle to Dr. Goldberg’s Judaism. It was as if the Red Sea had parted. We ate, were merry.
When Slider’s term was up, he took his family on a tour of the prison grounds in his Cadillac. Such an unauthorized tour is illegal. It is trespassing on federal property. The guards didn’t bust him, though. They wanted him gone as much as we did.
Tune in, more excerpts to come... If you know of any publishers interested in buying the rights to my book, let me know….
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