The Keys. Story #35b. Prison

skeleton_keys_on_a_ring

I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that opened by control after showing my ID. The chaplain who was supposed to accompany me had not showed up. They gave me a whole ring of skeleton keys to open the muscular depression era doors. I felt stupid; had the keys to the doors and no idea where to go. I was alone in the yard. I stuffed the keys into one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box into the other.

I strode to the rear of the yard and walked into an open door where a group of men where taking off or putting on their clothes, I think it was a gym.

Are you looking for the chapel? How they knew this, I can’t imagine but I did not look like an inmate (they have uniforms and generally wear bright orange knit hats).

Yes.

A guy took me outside the locker room and pointed me to the building next door.

It was locked up tight but I had the keys. I started going through them one after another, this was a large door and I began with the largest keys. I opened it.

Inside I found a light. Every single room was locked inside. I found the room I was in the last time, a larger room with some tables and a chalkboard, some instruments and a little stage, obviously a place where several groups share prayer and study privileges. I found the key to that room too. Now I was inside and I was alone.

I had learned at another institution I visit that if I opened the door, people tended to wander in. I made sure the outer door was open and within a few minutes an inmate came in and sat next to me, staring straight ahead at the altar/platform in front of us.

Mario [all the names have been changed], he said by way of introduction.

James, I said.

He asked me who I was and I told him.

Rabbi.

He told me how he had discovered the Hebrew Bible in a cell when he was first incarcerated. He had read through it, cover to cover.

I asked him if he remembered the story of Esther and he remembered everything. I told him that today was the Fast of Esther and I told him the story in a way he was not familiar.

I told him that God’s name is not mentioned in the book of Esther which is curious and crazy and I made the interpretation that it’s a sure sign that God is everywhere in the story, so full in the events and the personalities and the choices that we are at the level of all-over-God, God everywhere.

I’m with you, he said.

He knew what a Rabbi was and he then told me his whole story, from the age of sixteen to the present, which I imagine was about fifteen years. It was a tender story, clear and full of details, well parsed for meaning and a good sense of where it would go when he left this institution. He wanted to return to the small town he came from and he planned to go to College and I believed him.

Another guy came in and he greeted me in a rather formal, well-rehearsed way.

I won’t ask how you are doing – for that is a question and I may not know you well enough to ask you a question. I will not inquire what’s new as that is empty and meaningless and meant only to engage in small talk. I will simply bless you in the way of my tradition . . . and he switched to Arabic and quoted some of the holy Koran, a portion I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. His name was Alim. He had not asked mine.

He didn’t seem to know Mario so I introduced them. One of the Jewish inmates saw the door open from across the yard and he joined us, he didn’t know Mario either or Alim though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Alim had missed my introduction to Mario and left soon, returned about five minutes later with a few other guys.

You’re the rabbi! He said, I should have known! He must have asked around outside the chapel who is the guy with the not-orange hat in the chapel sitting around waiting for people to arrive.

There were two other individuals I visited the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.

Transferred, one of the Jewish guys, Samuel, told me.

Transferred?

They were sent to a smaller camp. It was in part their letters to me that brought me to that camp in the first place.

Now there weren’t enough of them left in this camp to meet on the Sabbath. The prison rule in my state is that a religious group and its rights are defined by half a minyan — five members — since the two had been sent away they only had three by my count.

The Muslim brothers will join your group, Alim said, we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want. Alim knew a lot, it seemed, about working the prison system.

The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together, Alim proclaimed, you’ll have a group this Saturday and every Saturday.

It was getting close to the time that I was supposed to leave. I asked the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers which way was east. Alim showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers made their prayers.

Come with me, I said, quick, because there were some other people starting to come into the room looking as if they were the next group.

We went into the corner facing east and I opened up my hands and sung out pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.
May God bless you and protect you.
Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.
May God’s face shine to you and be gracious to you.
Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.
May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.

As I was singing, I explained there is no partial, no individual, no incomplete – every single instance opens up onto the universal, and every partial resolves in the whole — everywhere God dwells is whole, quoting the holy Zohar.

I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut — the cognate root in Arabic and Hebrew — wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the All, shleimut, to be blessed with a sense of everything. Like Abraham our father in Genesis 24:1, to be blessed with everything and to live in a larger space than the separate self when it feels isolated, un-integrated, broken, incomplete. In this sense, there is no isolated, broken, separate, incomplete. There is Everything and each particular than opens onto Everything.

By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group, the room was filling up behind us and some of them were watching us.

Their leader came over to me and asked, what is that you are singing?

I told him basically the same things I told the Jewish and the Muslim brothers. He was holding my picture on my ID card that I had copied to get the keys.

You’re the rabbi, he said, they told me up front that you’re supposed to give me the keys.

So I gave the Christian brother the ring of keys, he seemed to know what he was doing, and I asked him for my picture just in case they inquired on my way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, the skinheads had heard I was around and had threatened, and on the way Alim scribbled something on a piece of paper. We talked with animation until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line in the yard they cannot pass and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were standing, ten feet behind me.

I walked back to them and thanked them and told them I would be back in two weeks, we’ll be here, said the Muslim brothers, all of us. Alim gave me the paper he was writing on.

This is what was written on the paper Alim had given me:

Brother, your presence here is engulfed with the love of forgiveness. Please do what you can for all in this community.

Is there something in this story that is not-God? I am searching for it, this continuation of the Purim story, though I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing. I could have not taken those keys when the chaplain didn’t show up, I could have turned around and gone home. I could have returned the keys when there was no one to meet me, I could have missed the opening.

Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.

james stone goodman