Friday, April 2, 2010

On Bad Authority


Letters from prison overflow their folders and a high stack of runoff nearly obscures my computer screen. These handwritten pages from my inmate penpals are filled with warmth for me and my family. There are handmade cards and clippings and cartoons. And because I ask, there are details about prison life. I am also asked to perform small tasks like ordering books or Internet research. I print crosswords and Sudoku every week for one inmate. I print patterns for paper models for another penpal. The plans are extremely intricate, often 15 pages for a plane or car. He traces each small piece onto cardstock before he is able to cut and assemble the model. He notes in his letter that he has time to spare. I am able to send the inmates stamps, paper and envelopes so I send the model builder a stack of cardstock, which to my mind is only thick paper. I receive a note that this, sent in via private individuals, is prohibited and the shipment has been destroyed. Inmates at certain prisons and in lower levels of security are issued hobby cards and thus permitted to purchase certain art supplies via mail from a few approved vendors. Unfortunately, prison wages are about twelve cents an hour and connections with family and friends outside who might provide monetary assistance often whither over the course of a long sentence.

Most of the Jewish chaplains serving California prisons are Orthodox Chabad rabbis. My penpals report that most of the Jewish chaplain’s time is spent interrogating prisoners who apply for the kosher meal plan to determine if they are truly Jewish. Actually, because there are no kosher kitchens at any of the state prisons, all of the kosher food is shelf stable and my penpals report, pretty vile. Nevertheless, the myth persists that kosher food is cleaner, and more healthful and better and apparently there is a considerable number of inmates who claim adherence to Judaism in order to qualify for the program.

Prison chaplains earn about $60,000.00 per year. My penpals report rabbis are seldom seen in the units more frequently than once a week. Our friend Alan at Tehachapi opts out of the kosher meal plan because the quality of food is so poor. He is pressured by the Orthodox chaplain to reinstate kosher meals and he capitulates. There are no holiday celebrations or Seders conducted at the prison because Orthodox rabbis will not travel on these days.

I suggest that perhaps a Reform or Conservative congregation might be willing, as a mitzvah project, to conduct holiday services and celebrations for inmates but the rabbi vetoes this vehemently stating he will not condone or authorize with the prison the defiance of the travel prohibitions on holy days by any Jew. Alan reports that at least his conversion back to the kosher plan entitles him to receive some matzo and grape juice for the celebration of Passover. Sadly, the real obligation attendant to the observance, the telling of Exodus tale, which might offer more succor and sustenance than matzo and grape juice, seems destined to never be fulfilled there behind the walls.


Spuds is visiting the office. He is offered a donut by the six year old son of a colleague. I’ve told both of my kids that they can make their own choice regarding the observance of Passover although my own crude version is to be respected at the house. Spuds looks at me to gauge if my office is considered a loophole or merely an extension of home. I cannot bear to see him eat a donut. I give him a stricken look and he tells the kid, “My mother doesn’t want me to,” lest the little guy take his spurning of the donut personally.

I pack in my briefcase a matzo with peanut butter and jelly and a bag of macaroons. I am accompanying Spuds to a large Hollywood soundstage so he can compete on a children’s game show. We sign off on a sheath of waivers and releases which, to an extent nearly laughable, hearken point by point back to the quiz show brouhahas of the 1950s. Many measures are taken to insure that there is no hanky panky including escorting contestants and their parents to the bathroom. There is a big table laden with snacks. Spuds refuses my proffered matzo. I tell him he can have some chips. He does and soda with sugar that he knows I don’t like him to drink plus a lot of candy which I can’t say much about, being afflicted myself with a lust for licorice, wine gums and Dots. There would have been a time when I would have been wounded if he hadn’t played the valiant Jewish boy, proudly choking down his matzo. Now I get it that he would feel like a freak (not to mention the inevitable mess of matzo) in front of all of his competitors. Spuds already has to deal with his weird name and this is not a Jewish crowd.

Spud’s rivals include two kids who have flown in from Texas and one travelling from New Jersey specifically to appear on the show. The mothers of the acting kids, although this is most decidedly not an acting gig, compare notes about agents, auditions, home schooling and frequent flyer miles in the green room. When our episode tapes I am jammed behind a small partition crammed with metal chairs among other parents to watch the competition on a small monitor.

I am seated next to a fat woman. The greatest sorrows of my life, my Egypt, to use the parlance of the season, tie into being fat. A fat writer in New York finds it remarkable the lengths people will go to in order to avoid sitting next to her on the subway. She designs a book jacket and uses it to cover whatever she is actually reading while travelling. The title of her fake book is “Fat is Contagious. Sitting Next to a Fat Person will Make you Fat.” I admire her guerilla consciousness raising but still I resent the fat mom’s hot hips pressing against me in the stifling space.

The kids from Texas and New Jersey are eliminated early in the first round and gifted a large bag filled with something green and gelatinous. Spuds is enthusiastic, without humiliating himself, and he tells a funny joke. It is a memory game and for me pretty impossible to keep up with. Spuds rebounds, after a buzzer gaffe, to reach the finals. He comes in second. The first place winner is the daughter of the fat woman.

Spuds rides down a huge slide filled with goop. He showers and changes into the clean garments we are instructed to bring. We sign for his prize, a Dance Dance Revolution type gizmo which we are informed is of insufficient value to be taxable. We are escorted off the lot. We both agree that it’s been pretty fun. “Yeah.” says Spuds, but those kids came all the way from Texas and New Jersey. We wouldn’t have come from Santa Monica.”

We have loosened up more and more on Passover dietary taboos every year and this year it occurs to me that maybe the food stuff is a distraction. Maybe I am ineffectual in the annual self examination towards escaping my own metaphorical enslavement while gorging on matzo with butter and macaroons. This year my Passover diet is comprised of protein drinks and fruit.

A girlfriend loses and maintains a great deal of weight. She attends Overeaters Anonymous. She eats three meals a day and no snacks ever. She does not eat anything containing sugar or flour ever. I know that such a program would be a remedy for something that has and continues to cause me great pain and anxiety. I would only have to surrender and not fall off the wagon.

Maybe this is the core of what’s wrong with me. The tenets of Judaism are all laid out and for many there is a huge fulfillment in the strict adherence to all of them. Part of me yearns for this surrender but it requires more of a separation from the Jewish neutral world than I am willing to make. There is a comfort in my little Passover protein diet, because I don’t have to make any choices but I cannot imagine any permanent abstention from many foods that I love. In matters of faith and diet I cobble my own path, albeit a shaky one. I have thick stacks of letters from a world bereft of choice. Maybe my choices are lousy but they are at least mine to make and anything else smacks of Egypt.
Shabbat shalom, good Good Friday and Easter Tidings.
Note regarding the illustration: Several weeks ago I used a 70's photograph of a teenage girl soaping the front end of a Dodge, sure that the turned up nose would make it quite clear that it wasn't me. Himself was able to ascertain that the photo was another girl due to lack of bushy hair and Bob's proof is that it has never been in my nature to wash a car. To avoid however any possible confusion, I will state that this week's illustration is indeed of someone other than myself.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

Yes, I attest the photo is not you. You'd never wear those ugly pants no matter how wide your waist. And, I concur that the common revulsion not to sit next to a fat person comes out of simple rights to our "sitzfleish" domain, even if on a metal chair. We get territorial, on the road, in our proxemics, wherever we find ourselves. The seats on mass transit are revolting and uncomfortable enough without having them creepy-crawlied over by an avoirdupois-laden fellow traveler. Take it from me. xxx me