The Day You Had To Be In The Jail-house To Be Free

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Profound and Stupid

Or: the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers make the prayers together

The trip to the jail-house is a profound and stupid activity that I had devoted myself to though I had received almost no support and felt entirely on my own. I had no idea what I was doing but what I was learning cracked me open and brought me close to the reasons I was in this whole thing from the beginning.

I had made the two hour trip to the prison house where I had been assured [e-mail] that the auxiliary chaplain would meet me at the prison house since I had visited there only one time previously and did not yet know the set-up. I wasn’t sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital.

I didn’t hear back but I made the trip anyway. When I arrived at the prison, I parked illegally and much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised by the heavily tattooed guard who buzzed me in and out. The staff at this prison house were extremely kind to me the first time I visited, there was a chaplain to meet me and he escorted me to the chapel, and the inmates themselves escorted me out and I had the sense they were protecting me, the reasons for which would clarify several years later.

This time there was no one to welcome me. The tattooed guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. “What is it with the Jews?” she asked me. “Used to be everyone wanted Islam, now they’re into Jews.” She buzzed me through. “Go upstairs and get your squawk box [personal alarm gizmo] and some keys. You’re on your own today.”

The prison is built like a camp out of depression era limestone that was mined from the area during the WPA, I believe. It has an interesting look from the outside, the textures of the wild limestone set within the formalism of brick, it is really quite beautiful from the outside anyway — a series of buildings surrounding a large open perpendicular space which is referred to as the yard.

I walked up the stairs to a window with bars and an opening on the bottom to push through the supplies from the room behind. In that room are alarms and radios and large circles of keys that open, I assumed, the various classic locks that kept muscular control over the structure.

I had my ID card that signified I was qualified to visit four prisons that had Jewish inmates who were eager to welcome me to their institutions. My ID is a plastic card with my picture and a clip that I put on my pocket and take off when I show it to the various gate-guards who must open several very heavy metal doors to get me into the depths of the institutions.

I stuck my head into the opening of the window with the bars and the sets of keys and squawk boxes, radios, etc. and said to the uniformed guard, “I’m going to the chapel.” I recalled that the chapel was at the far end of the yard because I remembered that the accompanied stroll back to the metal doors last visit was a long walk.

“You want keys?” the guard asked me. “Ok,” I said.

“You got tags?” he asked.

“No.” Tags were small metal cut-outs that you leave in the barred room in exchange for keys and radios and such.

“Go make a copy of your ID.”

I went walking down the hall until I saw a copy machine in an office and I walked in and made a copy of my ID card.

I returned and passed the copy of my ID card to the uniformed guard behind the bars and I saw him hang it on a hook and he passed through the hole in the bars a whole ring of keys, at least forty keys, and a squawk box.

“Thanks,” I walked away with the keys. I was on my own.

I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that move slowly and opened by showing my ID. I was alone in the yard. I stuffed the keys in one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box in 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?” I surely 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,” 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 told me he read it through, cover to cover.

We talked some about that and I told him a story 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 break the ice and 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, which I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. I will call him Yasin.

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 Yasin though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Yasin left soon, and 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 waiting for people to arrive.

There were two other individuals affiliated with the Jewish group who were present the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.

“Transferred,” one of the Jewish guys, Jacob, 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 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,” Yasin said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” Yasin knew a lot, it seemed, about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” Yasin said, “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. Yasin showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers faced east.

“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 Zohar.

I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut, wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the b’reikhah the pool of blessings — the wild chute that whisks you into the root above — to 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 — the isolated, the un-integrated, the broken, the incomplete.

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, “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 the way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way Yasin scribbled something on a piece of paper, we talked animatedly until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line they cannot pass and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were.

I thanked them and told them I would be back in two weeks. “We’ll be here,” said the Muslim brothers, “all of us.” Yasin gave me the paper he was writing on.

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

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

It’s always a hard trip to the jail-house, profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing. When no one would support the project, I could have pulled out. When I got to the jail-house I could have not taken those keys, 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 entire drama. Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.

rabbi james stone goodman