Life of a Jew in Prison during the Jewish Holidays

    January 2010            
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Chanukah in Prison- A Personal Re-dedication

By David Ben Israel

The taste of a kosher donut filled my mouth with gladness. It was the last night of Chanukah, 2007, the eighth night. A Chanukah I will always remember.

It began the first night….of course. The first night celebration consisted of a two inch by four inch piece of paper, a ducat. A ducat is a prison pass. It allows the named holder to go out of the building to see the doctor, visit with family, anything other than eating in the chow hall or walking on the yard. This ducat read "Chanukah Service" with the next day's date. My first thought was, "The rabbi is here!"

In seven months at Avenal State Prison I faced many challenges in my attempts to lead a Jewish life and pray with other Jewish men. I remember my first day, May 22, 2007. I said I wanted to pray. I asked when and where the Jewish group prays. "There is no Jewish group" was the reply. "They're too afraid of persecution." There was no rabbi, no kosher food and no Jewish Prayer time. I was given the name of a Jewish man. He turned out to be a Messianic (another name for Christian) Jew.

A short six months later a rabbi and twenty men said the Chanukah prayers, lit the Chanukah menorah and sang the dreidel song.

I immediately showed my ducat to Greg and Michael. Greg's Dad is Jewish. He was brought up Christian with a very Jewish surname. Greg was beaten and blinded in one eye in County Jail. He was placed in an area with gang members who are always ready for such an opportunity. The Sheriff's deputies removed him only a few minutes after condemning him to that area, bloodied, broken and barely conscious.

Our friendship continues to grow. Judaism adds depth to his understanding of himself and his relationship with G-d. Michael's Mom is Jewish. He's new to the Yard. Men filled with hatred and ignorance attacked him on one Yard. A kite (message) was sent and members of that group on the next Yard did the same. He was beaten unconscious both times suffered many bruised and broken ribs, blows to the head and was badly bloodied. Worse still the prison rewarded him with poor and delayed medical care, verbal abuse and three months in the hole. No, this is not a movie. These two men lived through my greatest fears in prison.

This Yard is much safer for Jewish men. It is a Special Needs Yard (SNY) made up of men at risk on "Mainline" yards. I remember walking back to my building carrying two bags; my monthly canteen purchase. As I sat next to the building eating a chocolate bar a new man walked up, pillow case of possessions in hand, facing a closed door. I told him the door would open in fifteen minutes and offered him some chocolate. He gladly accepted then introduced himself. "I'm Michael and I'm Jewish." Divine Providence! I was the first one he met on the yard. I smiled and said "Shalom" then to make sure he knew I was actually Jewish I began VeAhavta Et A-donai E-lochecha…. This is a very special prayer to me. I say the Shema and Veahavta before I go to sleep and upon waking in the morning. My observant son suggested it prior to my entering prison. I've said it every day since.

I didn't bring up my children in an observant home. About six years ago my daughter spent a year at Neve Yerushalayim and returned an Orthodox and observant Jewish woman, followed by my oldest son. Now my third child, a young man of 23 is living in the Old City of Jerusalem at a Yeshiva. Another daughter wears a head covering. G-d is truly blessing our family.

Many years ago my Hebrew School principal told me how reciting VeAhavta saved his life. While escaping the Nazis he tried to gain entrance to a "safe house." They didn't know him. Knowledge of how to chant Veahavta Et Adonai Elochecha…. meant the difference between life and death. That lesson stuck with me, thank G-d. I'm also thankful to the person who opened the door for a boy who later enriched the lives of so many young people.

I went to sleep with my ducat placed safely in my Siddur. I've received so many books through the mail. My wife, Catholic by birth, has a way of picking the most wonderful and amazing books. I've read more books in the last year than in the last twenty. Man's search for Meaning, The Chosen, The Promise, many by Rabbi Telushkin and Rabbi Kushner. Books published by Aish HaTorah.

My favorite book read in prison is My Grandfather's Blessings by Dr. Remen. I cried while sitting in a 6' by 12' cell reading about people with challenges far greater than my own. It is such a life affirming book. I've shared it with many. Bob was my cell mate for one month. Every afternoon we took turns reading one story. Usually that led to two or three. Bob, a Christian man took on the nick name of "Stiff Neck, the Israelite." It was so true of both of us. I'm laughing just thinking about it. Bob is serving 45 to life for a crime he swears he did not commit. He was 72 years old at the time, just completing the first year of his sentence.

The second night of Chanukah arrived filled with anticipation. Twelve of us stood by the chapel door waiting for the rabbi to arrive. An hour later nothing had changed, no rabbi. Door still locked. A request to the Sergeant opened the chapel doors to a Chanukah feast of hard boiled eggs, cold baked potatoes, peanut butter, jelly, bread, pears and hot tea. This must be the official food for Jewish Holy days as it was served for lunch on Yom Kippur. If this confuses you don't feel alone. On Yom Kippur, a great disappointment became an even greater spiritual moment.

The Kol Nidre Service was scheduled for the main chapel. All eleven Jews and that many inmate guests would attend. Four people were given parts in the service. I prepared intensely for three days just to memorize the Kol Nidre Prayer. I only remembered how to sing the first line, both from my Temple as a child and from The Jazz Singer. I had to create my own tune for the rest. Aleph Foundation sent our only Machzor just weeks earlier. That gift made our Yom Kippur possible. At the last minute our Chapel time was cancelled, I was threatened and potential attendees dispersed. A friend suggested we hold service on the bleachers. With six in attendance and men walking by on the track we proceeded with a partial service. My life long dream of chanting Kol Nidre came true. Drops of rain began to fall from heaven during the recitation of the prayer. The same friend said he felt spiritually cleansed. I sang the prayer three times. Each recitation more intense, more passionate. As in sports, I left everything on the field.

My life since my arrest has been Teshuvah: repentance. I hadn't been a practicing Jew since my Bar Mitzvah, 35 years ago. Looking at a probable prison term brought me to the lowest point in my life. Low enough that suicide seemed like the only logical next step. I hit rock bottom. One Saturday morning I decided to go to the Temple of my youth. Sitting in the congregation, singing and listening to the prayers in Hebrew brought a feeling of healing in my heart. It felt good. I hadn't had one good feeling in weeks. But now I felt good.

As a child we went to Temple Friday nights and Saturday mornings for Shabbat services. I learned the prayers and was even in the Boy's choir. I have my parents to thank for that as well as my Grandparents. My Dad was in the Men's Club and my Mom literally ran the kitchen. I donated money for memorial plaques in my parent's names. Then I decided to attend services at the Temple close to my home.

I was greeted by a congregation lacking a rabbi made up of some real characters. I instantly fell in love. The congregants embraced me. A 96 year old, the oldest man and member became my best friend. We were connected at a soul level. I was home and this was my spiritual family. In two weeks I was a choir member. In three weeks we had a new rabbi, a truly spiritual man, a brother and a father. A friend and a mentor. He is the rabbi I would have liked to become had I continued my Jewish studies. But when asked if I wanted to be a rabbi, as a teenager, I said no. Now I was excited to pray; under the leadership of my rabbi. I also helped prepare the Oneg Shabbat. Like my Mom and my Grandpa who was the Shamas at his Temple in Chicago, service is a part of me. My Grandpa loved me unconditionally. I knew it then and I still feel it. I carry his love with me always.

In the prison reception center, the first stop on my prison journey, we were not allowed to receive books through the mail. The intellectual vacuum of cell living without books, phones or program was devastating to my mind. Twenty three plus hours each day locked up. Only one hour per week on the Yard. So, when a pile of books appeared at my cell door I was initially very happy. The Tower Guard remotely opened my cell door. It slid sideways to reveal five or six books. On top was a book of IQ tests and one of mental puzzles. Then I saw it. Unbelievable! A Machzor, blue with a spongy cover. The very prayer book my grandfather gave me at my Bar Mitzvah. My name etched in gold colored ink. I cried.

While still free I enjoyed services with the Rabbi. Amazingly I remembered 90% of the Hebrew prayers and soon all of them plus prayers and melodies common at this Temple but new to me. Then it happened, during the Torah service.

Now, as a child, the "Torah service was the most boring part of Temple. We just sat and watched or followed the chanting of words I didn't understand. It seemed to go on forever. But on that day watching and listening to the Rabbi chant from the Torah scrolls was very different. It was transcendent. Here, before me, were the words of G-d. A direct connection between the infinite Creator of the universe and me. He was speaking directly to me. These were the same words and the same chant that resounded on that day throughout the world, unchanged for thousands of years. The Torah seemed like a living gateway to G-d. I didn't know how many more times I might hear it. I was going to prison, maybe I wouldn't return. Or I might still end my life. So this might be the last time I ever heard someone chanting from the Torah, the words of G-d.

I breathed it in. I tried to draw it down to my soul as deep as possible, never to let it go. It was glorious. I don't know if I had ever felt such a spiritual high, such contentment, such a connection with the Lord.

The rabbi approached me after the service. He noticed a change in my face during the Torah service. I told him how much I loved and appreciated the Torah, how it is our direct connection with G-d. I shared all I had felt and thought.

The next Shabbat I was called to the bima during the Torah service. The rabbi handed me an old well used book with a hard black cover containing the Torah in Hebrew with vowels. He asked me to stand next to him and point at the words. Not to go ahead but to point at them as he chanted them. I was ecstatic. Surprisingly I was able to do it. I hadn't gone to Temple many times and my Hebrew education ended decades ago. So I stood there in the vortex the soon to be convicted felon, honored beyond my dreams. Members of the congregation congratulated me and I thanked the rabbi. How was I to know that on the next Shabbat the blessings continued? I was directed to stay on the Bima until the end of the service where I sang along with the entire congregation. What was I doing up there? Than I realized, G-d was welcoming me back. I was acceptable in G-d's Temple. I was and am very grateful. Although I never asked I was called to the Bima every Shabbat.

The High Holy Days came and I was in the choir. My wife, three of our children and my Aunt were in attendance when the rabbi called my name again. For both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I received an honor I didn't deserve. An honor I am speechless to explain.

It was the second night of Chanukah but it was our first night. We stepped into the Multi faith room. Its walls festooned with Islamic religious aphorisms and Arabic letters. A poster of The Dome of the Rock was prominently displayed. The Muslims control the room. It is their clerk's office. Sadly, their domination is enforced with violent threats. The lessons of the world are all too clear in prison.

None of the Messianic Jews were ever Jewish. It's very confusing. Referring to themselves as Jews they had refused to pray with me, never heard of the Shema and called our Holy Days feasts. Rosh Hashanah was the Feast of Trumpets.

None the less, tonight was Chanukah and it was my job to lead everyone who came to celebrate and pray. I told the story of Chanukah and we recited the three prayers (our first night). We talked about how laws are called Mitzvot (blessings). I realized in prison that anytime I do anything with G-d in mind I feel blessed. Doing G-d's Mitzvot is a blessing. I told stories of my childhood Chanukah experiences. We sang O Chanukah O Chanukah Come light the Menorah….I was surprised how much there was to say about the dreidel and how many men had questions.

My Dad always began the nightly Chanukah celebration by saying, "the feast of Dedication lasts eight days." I guess we do have feasts. I never thought about the use of the word dedication. We never focused on the rededication of the Temple. Then, it hit me. As part of Teshuvah Chanukah gives me the opportunity to rededicate my "Temple" to G-d. So, each of us, together, rededicated our lives to a relationship with G-d and a commitment to improving ourselves and helping others. What better gifts could we hope to receive on Chanukah? The service was over before I knew it. All the food found its way into mouths and pockets and bags.

The next morning I felt sad. We hadn't lit the Chanukah candles. Not only was there no rabbi, but no Menorah, no candles and no matches. Nor was anyone inclined to help in this area. I came up with an idea of how we could perform the Mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candles.

That evening I set up nine chairs. Eight were brown metal folding chairs. One cushy chair was set in the middle with four on each side. That would be our Menorah and the men would become Chanukah candles. We are to be lights unto the nations. It made sense.

As men entered the Chapel one man sat on the Shamas chair. I didn't know this man. I asked if he likes to help people. He said, "Yes I do." I explained that he was the Shamas, the helper candle and it's an honored position in our service.

It was the third night. When it was time to light the Menorah all but four men got up from the specially placed chairs revealing our Menorah, human candles in their proper places. I told the story of Chanukah and spoke specifically about the miracle and the oil. We said the prayers. I explained the process of lighting the Menorah as we acted it out. I walked up to the Shamas and shook his hand. He stood up signifying being lit. He then walked to the man representing the candle for the third day and shook his hand. Day three stood up. The Shamas continued to days two and one in that order. Each stood up. The Shamas returned to his position. I shared that the light from Chanukah candles is sacred and not to be used to simply light the room. We discussed the significance of being a light to the world and being a light on the Yard.

My grandmother used to say, "Men make plans and G-d laughs." She was born in Poland in the 1870s. She worked to send her brothers and sister to America before she came herself. I remember how respectfully she was treated at our Temple. Even at 90 she attended Temple, wore a wig, koshered her own meat and lit the Shabbat candles. What happened to me?

I believe G-d has a sense of humor. In fact things are always happening in my life where I catch G-d laughing at me. I'm just happy He remembers who I am. The cosmic joke that night was the name of our Shamas - Mr. Candler. He found his way to the Menorah every night.

The fourth night saw twenty men in attendance. Jews, Messianics, Christians, Pagans and Muslims were all there. When I began "Baruch Atah Adonai" the room responded in one voice. It almost knocked me over. When did everyone learn the prayers? I was the only one with a prayer book. I don't recall a Chanukah night as special as that one. We added the dreidel song accompanied by Greg on the organ. We said the Mourner's Kadish although I don't know why. We sang Adon Olom responsively Adon Olom, Adon Olom Asheyr Malach Asheyr Malach. A room of mostly non-Jews singing prayers in Hebrew with excellent pronunciation and passion. We left the chapel walking on air.

I was informed the next day the Messianics refused to attend future Chanukah celebrations. They were offended by the presence of Christians and Pagans. I guess praying with Jews was hard enough but this was too much.

The fifth night brought another full room and two hours of celebration and spiritual upliftment. We talked about being children of One G-d. What does it mean to be Jewish? To have a covenant with G-d. Shema Yisrael, what does that prayer mean? More praying, lighting candles, singing and eating.

The next day a Christian man asked how I could allow Pagans to pray with us. I asked if Easter was an important day to him. He said, "Yes, it is the day of the resurrection of my Savior." "Well, if I asked to go with you to church on Easter to pray would you let me go?" "Of course I would," he replied. "Who am I to refuse men entrance to pray with us?" He understood.

Each night had its own theme. G-d was gracious unto us. Topics also included repentance, forgiveness, healing and obedience.

Condemnation of my actions continued each day. But the tide had turned. Different men began to approach me in the building and on the yard. I heard many stories of men's connections with Judaism. They asked to attend our Jewish meetings and to learn to read Hebrew. Our prison yard was feeling very Jewish.

I planned a special service for the eighth night. Yet, I had a feeling the service would not go on as planned. The Sergeant was mad. Men were eating dinner then eating again at Chanukah. Our building officers released us late. I stood outside in the "insulin" line and watched time go by without the Chapel door being opened. We finally got into the chapel, most of us hungry since we skipped dinner. Only fifteen men were there so I wanted to wait a few more minutes. I thought to sing a prayer while we waited but I couldn't match the organ music. So I took a breath and prayed silently.

The Chapel door opened and in walked the rabbi. Petite with bright red hair she resembled my favorite aunt. I was overjoyed. Kind and pleasant she set up an electric Menorah while handing out prayers and Chanukah songs. She's also a Cantor. Her angelic voice lifted us spiritually.

Our Temple was rededicated that night. Prison can be a place of repentance, forgiveness and healing. It is a wonderful place for Teshuvah. Chanukah is a time when we rededicate our own lives to G-d and our spiritual journey. Many of us are lost and broken. Living a Jewish life can literally be the difference between life and death. It is for me.


from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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