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

Prison Journal

Prison Journal, January

I am called to the jail. Heroin. The jail is new so I do not know the protocol. I am new at this too. My name is supposed to be at the desk for visitors.

At one o’clock I show up at the jail. “Empty your pockets, please,” I am asked as I am about to walk through the metal detector.

I empty my pockets in the plastic tray.

“You have a weapon in your pocket,” a large female guard says, “didn’t you read the sign ‘no weapons’ no exceptions, take that weapon out of here.”

Weapon? Oh my God, I forgot, I am carrying a knife, a pocket knife, but not a civilized Swiss army knife but, well, it’s a real knife. I grew up in Detroit.

The guard is practically yelling at me. I feel, of course, ridiculous. I had forgotten about that knife. I take the knife outside the jail and there is a large planter with dead flowers in it, I hide the knife in the planter. Now it is a concealed weapon I suppose.

I come back into the jail, again up to the metal detector, the big guard says, “I saw you stash that weapon.”

“I planted it,” I said, “It’s not a weapon.”

“That’s beautiful,” she said, not smiling, I think maybe she is making fun of me.

I go up to the visitors desk. “Too late,” said the guard behind the desk.

“I was here on time.”

“Too late now.” I think he saw me plant the knife.

“Wait a second,” I said, my voice rising, “that’s not fair.”

“It’s jail,” he said.

On my way to my car, I wondered why I didn’t tell him I am the rabbi. I can visit any time if I just told him I am the rabbi.

In the car and down Wydown Boulevard. Too fast, uh oh, cop.

Cop pulls me over and gives me a ticket for ten over. I sit there with my mouth shut, inside I am howling “tell him you work with the police, tell him you created a chaplaincy program for the city PD, open your mouth and tell him!”

I didn’t tell him. I was speeding. Ten over.

I went back to the jail the next day. No weapons.

“You’re not on the list,” said the guard.

“I’m the rabbi.”

“Oh. What church?”

“No church. Synagogue.”

He sends me upstairs to get approval from Mr. D.

“I’m the rabbi.”

“Do you have any proof?”

“Got Torah –”

We both laugh. He takes me into his office.

He is a Christian man he tells me. We talk soulfully in his office about jail, freedom, God, holiness, the doors that open to me because of my profession. I love these conversations. He asks me if he can call on me to come and visit when he needs a rabbi.

“I will come to see anybody, any time.”

I visit with the prisoner. We talk about jail, freedom, drugs, narrow places, freedom stories, the truth that we carry our jail around with us, or we don’t.

Later, my son asks me to take his car in for service. I drive it over to the dealer, I sit in the waiting room and read the sedrah from the Torah, Beshallach, the Song of the Sea.

Soon I am the only one in the room. There is a TV in the room, Jeopardy. I love Jeopardy. I haven’t seen Jeopardy in years and I remember how much I love Jeopardy. It’s celebrity Jeopardy from Las Vegas, not as good.

I try to concentrate on the holy Torah. Oprah comes on. Female sexual dysfunction. Oh God. The TV is loud and way up high on the wall, couldn’t turn it down if I wanted to.

I stand up and watch. I am watching because there is no one else in the room. In walks a young woman with a large text book and a notebook, she sits down in the room, starts reading, I pretend I am not watching the TV though I am standing in front of it looking up as if to a mountain and sit down in my seat by the door. I feel, of course, ridiculous.

TV. Vaginal dryness. Self stimulation. Oh God. I bury my head in my book. Oprah.

I take out a pad of paper and begin to scribble. I am writing this piece, actually, to try and keep my eyes away from the television. Do not look at the girl sitting across from me. Lubricants. Vibrators. I am writing feverishly. Oh jeez.

I keep my head in my pad, scribbling away. Does the testosterone cream work? Oprah. Oh God. Don’t look up.

How large? What can Leticia do to improve her sex life? Be right back. Oh God.

Finally, I can’t stand it. I glance up, I pick up my head, just a glimpse to see what she is doing, big book, notebook, sitting across from me in the room waiting for the cars. Oh my God. Our eyes lock. Just that moment, in that same second she lifts her head too and our eyes lock.

“I’m the rabbi.”

Silence. She nods. Jeez, do I feel stupid. She goes back to her book.

I’m the rabbi, God, finally I have it integrated. Hey Oprah, hey you two sisters on TV who opened a clinic for female sexual dysfunction. I got it now, let me practice saying it so I’m not caught off guard.

I’m the rabbi.

United States of America

Prison Journal Dec. 22, 2011

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I saw a camel again on the road down the heartline, southeast Missouri. It wasn’t moving, I don’t think, it came up on me so quickly I had no time to prepare and I passed it and just glimpsed it before the turn in the road or the trees or the distance I drove out of sight. I was late and it was raining but I got off the road nonetheless, determined to backtrack and find the location of the sighting. I drove down an adjacent road, not a service road exactly, but a road near the highway on which I am certain I had seen the beast.

I drove and I drove and I came to an unlikely place, a yard full of concrete knick-knacks and statuary and in front a long pen boundaried-by-wire fencing in which there was – a camel. I drove right up to it. I got out of my car and the camel came over to me like a dog in the backyard. I had left the door of my car open, in spite of the rain, and I forgot that I was carrying a box full of latkes — potato and sweet potato and zuccini latkes – it was the second day of Hanukkah and I was taking latkes with me to sneak into the prison house and share with the prisoners I teach. The latkes have a powerful smell and no doubt it was wafting towards the camel who seemed more passionate about meeting me than I would have anticipated. I thought maybe it was the aroma of those latkes blowing out of the car like I was Jim Morrison falling out of the limousine in a cloud of smoke at the Fillmore East.

The camel is wondering: Who is this guy, and what is that aroma?

The beast came as far as she could towards me and hung its noble head and excellent neck over the barrier and entered as much as it could my space on the freedom side of the fence. I was a little startled but had already begun a not-imaginary dialogue with the beast, explaining [out loud] I have been tracking its existence for at least six months on my run down the heartline, the Omphalos, from my chariot on the freeway on the three hour crossing to the prison house. It was raining and muddy but when you are alone on an adventure that takes you to the edges where God and crime and mercy converge — for you it’s ascendant for them is what’s for lunch or how can we get some warm food in here — one just might dialogue with a camel on the way down and that would be the least dramatic act you commit that day.

I spent some time, maybe ten minutes in the rain and mud, conversing with that beast from my homeland surely displaced as are we both here in southern Missouri — myself on the freedom side of the fence — or so I thought. The camel lost interest in me when I didn’t offer up any latkes before I lost interest in her. I believe the last thing I asked her — now rhetorically or I was talking to myself – was this: what do I call you? I was getting wet and I was late or it would have continued (I had more patience for camel than camel had for me); I turned around to wipe off and return to my chariot. I elected not to visit the shack that oversaw the area up a short hill when I looked there and in the doorway staring at me was a/the proprietor, an older man dressed in work clothes.

I paused for a moment then lifted my arms and shrugged my shoulders, an acknowledgement of the wonder and appreciation of encountering this beast in this place. I was saying/asking: one day you will tell me how you acquired a camel.

He returned the same gesture, isn’t she wonderful you’re welcome to visit and I will tell you all that you will no doubt share with your readers or prisoners or friends wherever you are traveling in your marvelous life.

I left.

jsg usa

Profound and Stupid

Profound and Stupid: Raza de-Purim, the Secret of Purim, part 3

March 17, 2011

Taanit Esther – The Fast of Esther

The story had become profound and stupid. Profound and stupid, I changed the title of this part of the story as soon as I wrote it: Profound and Stupid, a continuation of the Raza de-Purim, the secret of Purim.

At the end of the fast of Esther this year, 2011, Aristide, former President of Haiti who I wrote about in another piece, returned home to Port-au-Prince after having spent seven years in exile in South Africa. My last encounter with him had been precisely the same day on the Jewish calendar, nineteen years ago, at the house where Katherine Dunham was holding a fast on behalf of Haiti in East St. Louis, Illinois. What does it mean? I asked to no one in particular, I felt it was significant but I was still ill and rebounding from yesterday’s experience in the prison and not alert or well enough to think it through. Another chapter: Aristide as part of the Katherine Dunham story, nineteen years later he returns to the Haiti story on the same day – so what. No one knows my part of these stories anyway.

My story is not known primarily because I simply showed up and watched it. Then I wrote it. This figured for me in the realm of “big deal,” partially because I was somewhat depressed and partially because I broke my fast by eating that lousy chicken they advertise on television to break my fast on the way home from prison and couldn’t sleep the entire night. Still – I knew I was part of a story that needed telling.

Earlier that day, 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 entirely sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital.

I made the trip. When I arrived at the prison, I parked much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised by the 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 (a new feeling but not unpleasant).

This time there was no one to welcome me. The guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. She buzzed me through anyway. “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 this depression era structure.

I had my ID card which 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 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 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).


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.


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.

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 of Katherine Dunham and her holy fast and the story no one knows about how she broke her fast.

I told him that G*d’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 G*d 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-G*d, G*d 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. His name was Elyasha.

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 came, he didn’t know Mario either or Elyasha though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Elyasha 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 sitting around waiting, 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.


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

Now there weren’t enough of them left in this camp to meet officially 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,” Elyasha said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” Elyasha knew a lot, it seemed, about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” Elyasha 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. Elyasha 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 G*d bless you and protect you.

Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.

May G*d’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 G*d’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 G*d 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, 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.

By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group — a program called IFI I think — the room was filling up behind us and some of them were watching us.

Their leader came over to me and said, “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 asked me on the way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way Elyasha scribbled something on a piece of paper, we talking 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.” Elyasha gave me the paper he was writing on.

This is what was written on the paper Elyasha gave 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-G*d? I am searching for it, this continuation of the Raza de-Purim, though it began [for me anyway] profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing, 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.

At the chicken shack on the way home, I could have passed on that [I should have] because I was up the entire night ruminating with my belly what constitutes G*dlness, what does not – even passing by the macro-question once or twice: why don’t the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers and the Christian brothers always get inside the story together? Why isn’t that always the Raza, the secret of Purim.


I Go To Prison

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.