Prison Journal. July 2013.

July 8, 2013
Clayton, Missouri

Mr. B of the Clayton jail called to tell me he had an inmate requesting kosher food. Mr. B generally interviews those who request kosher and he always asks what’s the most important Jewish festival? I think Mr. B generally doesn’t get much of an answer, but this guy gave him a list of half a dozen. Still, he was suspicious.

Oh yes, I know him I told Mr. B. He used to come by the Thursday night group for recovering addicts and he came to the synagogue too. Then he vanished.

Well he’s here and he’s detoxing off of heroin I think.

I hope you’ll give him some good kosher food while he’s coming down.

You know him?

Yes I know him.

I didn’t know him well but I remembered him and remembered when he came around he came with regularity and I found him a job after a while, an assistant cook in a nice restaurant.

When I went to see him I asked, what happened?

Couldn’t stay with it. I messed up.

He was picked up with drugs and later I found out there was a weapons violation involved uh oh and he was looking at serious time.

I’m often surprised by these guys, many of them are smart and seem sincere and sometimes I can’t figure how they get into the messes they get into. With this guy, he missed a basic lesson. I asked him whether they had meetings in the jail house, he said no just Christian. What do you mean? No Jewish prayers.

No I said, I don’t mean prayer services. I know there’s a lot of Christian prayer meetings in prison, I’m talking about AA meetings, NA meetings.

Oh, I don’t know, he said.

I realized then that for him Judaism was his program. That’s backwards.

Sobriety is your religion now, I said, recovery. AA is your religion NA, get yourself to meetings. Make your sobriety the center of your life. Everything else will follow. I don’t think anyone ever said that to him before, he looked so surprised.

I’ll get you a Hebrew Bible I said, in English, soft cover. I’ll get you a calendar. I’ll put together a book of teachings for you. You get yourself to meetings.

I need a Hebrew name, he said.

His given name had no precise Hebrew equivalent. What is it you love?

I work with my hands. I can build and fix anything. I want to fix up old houses.

I told him about Betzalel, the first artisan, and how without him the Temple could not have been built. G*d showed Moses the pattern floating in the sky but without the artist Betzalel it could not have been built.

Betzalel? He said it with a little difficulty.

Yes, you like it? The artisan. The builder.

Yeah that’s right. Let’s pray with it.

What’s your mother’s name?

She’s gone.

What’s her name?

Her name was Deborah.

That’s a Hebrew name, you know, you’re Betzalel ben Devorah and now I’m going to chant a holy prayer for your healing in your name and the name of your mother through whom your healing comes.

I sat there in the jail house cubicle separated by the thick glass with the phone to my face him a foot away and I chanted some healing prayers naming him and his mother and praying for his complete healing.

Thank you, he said, he thanked me again. Say it again? He asked. I did. Several more times.

The next time I saw him I had given Mr. B a Hebrew Bible in English translation soft cover and asked him to give it to Betzalel. I put a note on the inside with the page number where Betzalel is mention in Exodus 31 and I highlighted the verses.

I went up to the cubicle. We talked some more. He would be at the Clayton jail longer than he thought and he knew he was looking at serious time. I told him that Mr. B had a soft cover Hebrew Bible in English translation for him.

How do you say it, and he tried to say Betzalel but it didn’t come out right.

In the Bible you’ll be getting they call him Bezalel, you can use that if you like and I felt myself beginning to speak easy English to him thinking he’s not going to get this Bezalel easily and in mid-sentence as I was explaining how he could say Bez-a-lel nice and slowly, he said:

It’s a tzaddi — (the Hebrew letter that is more correctly transliterated as tz or ts though there is no exact English equivalent).

Yes, I said, it’s a tzaddi, knowing he has been studying Hebrew and once again I betray my bias and how wrong I am to assume he has not entered deep into his name into this search he is on for meaning and how irrelevant it is that he is a foot away separated by thick glass we are talking by phones through the jail house window he is a black man and when the keepers of the purse ask me who are the people you see in the prison house are they white are they black are they Jewish how completely irrelevant that is on so many levels and how many of them know what a tzaddi is how many?

Forgive me, I think, I smile a big smile shamed by my bias, yes I said it’s a tzaddi just say it slow and in syllables until it becomes comfortable: B’tzal-El. It means in the shadow of G*d.

jsg, usa