Why I Go To Prison
Listen to these words, these noble truths, on the road I am four times a month to visit individuals incarcerated for crimes I know not what, mostly in institutions far from the urban centers I inhabit, sources of employment for uncrossed pathways, tucked away in rural Missouri these jail houses, overflowing with offenders on the holy search for identity, redemption, self.
O prisoners, O incarcerated, O souls in motion, O prisoner violators, O forgotten solace, O pity O compassion, O compassion ascendant.
Identity is central in these institutions. The movement within, the spiritual search for meaningful inwardliness – this is the bread out of which they recreate their existence. Not for bread alone do they live, they live for everything that issues from the mouth of G*d.
We sit around tables at four institutions and study, sometimes ten, twenty, up to thirty participants. There are on-going Jewish study groups at four institutions this way in the Missouri prison system. Why? I ask. “Because we have time. We are hungry,” they say, “starving for this.”
We divide up our sessions into three segments: first hour, basic Hebrew. Second hour, texts that I create (special permission needed for books even pamphlets, not papers), third hour, unscripted open dialogue.
Second session at level 5 institution (highest security): first hour we are studying the holy prayers from a basic Hebrew primer. We are reading around the table, we come to a word with a kamatz katan (Hebraists: an O vowel with the orthography of an ah vowel, related to the O vowel the cholem, non Hebraists: a vowel sound that is not distinguishable from another vowel sound unless you know).
The prisoner to my left puts down his book: “what is the precise relation of the kamatz katan to the cholem?” he asks me. I have not mentioned kamatz katan, cholem, any grammatical point at all, this is at the beginning of our Hebrew studies and I had figured they were basic. This is a question that one does not ordinarily encounter until University Hebrew studies. Tell me reader: what is the relation of the kamatz katan to the cholem?
They pronounce these words as if they were English and not transliterations from Hebrew which tells me they are self educated to a sophistication with gaps in their learning. They do not know how to pronounce the names of many of the letters and vowels with which they are familiar, but they have been educating themselves in a way as sophisticated as any I have encountered in thirty years of teaching these subjects.
Each one of my visits is three hours long, no one gets up even for a bathroom break, we sit nose to nose for three hours. They can wander around if they like but no one leaves the table for the entire time I am there.
The level of discussion in general is on a level as sophisticated as any class I have taught. My expectations are showing. I could have been surprised, I suppose, by a little learning, but this is off the chart. They have been doing their homework, educating themselves in Jewish subjects, developing the necessary Jewish vocabulary, studying Hebrew, reading, learning, praying together in these small groups in currently four institutions in Missouri.
Every time I arrive, someone says to me, “we’ve been waiting for you.”
My name is Rabbi James Stone Goodman, I am the chaplain for Jewish Prison Outreach.