The Prison Rabbi: Impossible Passover Blues


Someone spreading peanut butter on matzo bread on a blue doily.

Every year there are Passover food shortages in prison. If Passover food isn't served though, Jewish inmates can sue California for violation of First Amendment rights. Credit: CreativeCommons / Idit Narkis Katz.

In the Department of Corrections Operations Manual it states clearly, that every religious group of inmates are allotted no more than two religious banquets a year. The State claims to cover the expenses for these religious banquets. The following is a narrative history of one of these events.
This year, all Jewish inmates of any race, creed and color residing at Happy Valley State Prison had their annual Passover Banquet without any delays, obstructions and obfuscations. All the memos were signed off by no less than twenty-six officials for a Jewish religious event situated in two separate yards (each yard housing a specific category of prisoner, such as violent or non violent; gang or non gang; general population or protected), for a total of fifty-two Jews. Everything went according to plan. I even coaxed some of my attendees to share what they were going through and they were warmly heard by the rest of the congregation; as far I could tell. There was the satisfaction of cutting through the enormous chain of command in order to celebrate a religious holy day, a day of freedom and redemption. I must be frank; the Passover banquets were much anticipated events, a sacred ritual performed on the first two nights of Passover. These Passover Banquets, the ones I performed and facilitated were performed four days into the Holiday or days before the holiday since I am a religious man and cannot travel during the actual holyday. Nevertheless, they still worked. Why? Well first off, the inmates receive a lot of extra food and free Passover food donations from Return- the National Outreach to Jews in Prisons. I watched their faces. I know it’s a big thing for these guys. An event that happens once a year for Jewish inmates. Two: Everybody relates to freedom and redemption. The entire Jewish community affirms with all their buddies how essential and endearing the story of the Exodus is to all oppressed peoples of the world. To be honest with you, I have experienced African American participants truly experience liberation and redemption in deeper ways than a lot of the Jewish inmates who do not let on what is truly going on deep in their hearts. The Black brothers, they express themselves and I hear from them that they “got” the Exodus story, the story of Passover and the function and meaning the telling of the Haggadah. My Jewish brothers definitely intellectually know a lot more than the non- Jewish participants and they show off more. On the other hand it is challenging to decipher the condition of their hearts.
My memories emerged out of my brain as I drove back to my lonely non-descript Western style motel located near a Hispanic Mexican agricultural farm town.
What happened at this year’s annual Passover Banquet was a far cry from the first Passover Seder I performed at San Joaquin State prison many years before. At that time it took no less than three and half months, that is ninety — ninety blankety bloody days to locate and convince twenty-six prison officials to sign my memos authorizing the event to happen. One year, I literally ‘walked’ the document through all the offices in all the departments that required signatures from their department heads. It took an entire day- close to nine hours. All the following years I began composing the Passover memos three to four months before; it was sent as a chain letter: one official sign off and then the document was ‘kicked’ up to next official in the chain of command. I did not sign up for this kind organizational meandering and bureaucratic obfuscation. Nevertheless, it was something I forced myself to learn. Even though I was enraged at first. By and by I resigned myself to the strange ways of this dark and humorous universe of American prison culture.
Food was the next big issue. Where do you get Kosher for Passover food? The State contracted with a food service provider called American Food Inc. and they subcontracted with kosher food providers who sell their products to the State. In order to have a Passover banquet one must have Kosher for Passover food. I don’t know if you could appreciate this, but everyone knows at least in the food department that in order to get food for April you must order by January. The culinary department did everything right. They ran a tight ship down below in the prison food world; a well protected zone where even during lockdowns (caused by inmate incidents such as riots, stabbings and confrontations with custody officers) culinary worker inmates are brought down to prepare meals for close to seven thousands incarcerated souls.
The Food Department expected the Kosher for Passover food in the beginning of March of 2005. Nothing arrived! They waited another week. No communication. No Food. Suddenly, two weeks before the Passover holiday, a truck arrived from American Food Company (aka AFC). Word traveled down to Culinary Department: The Kosher Has Arrived!
A twist in procedures unravels in a way I never thought it would. In the Department of Corrections the protocol for delivery of food is as follows: the front gate officer takes a long handled pole with a big 24 inch concave mirror attached to its end and she, usually a female officer, slides the mirror underneath the chassis of the fourteen wheeler and makes sure there is no contraband or weapons of any sort covertly being brought in; and then the driver presents his (it’s usually a male truck driver), papers, ID, company authorization and invoices of the items brought into the institution. If everything checks out, papers are given back to the truck driver and the truck is waved into the sally port, the backdoor gateway to the institution.
The trucker’s papers didn’t clear! His driver’s license was expired; his credit cards were expired; he did not have even one id. He even misplaced the invoices of American Food Company. The gate officers refused to allow the trucker into the institution; I discovered later, he was a very nice down home dude from the Sierra foothills, a former corn farmer of the San Joaquin valley named Andy McIntyre. Lost his farm due to corporate farm buyouts and had to truck to earn his living. Nevertheless, he was ID handicapped. He was refused entry.
“I’ve been working for five years for AFC. Why don’t you call them up? Just this one time? Please..?”
The Gate Officer replied bluntly: “No ID No Come IN.”
So he turned his truck around and headed back to Modesto the shipping headquarters of AFC. Now, this is the part I do not comprehend. One would think the trucker would bring the truck back to headquarters; the warehouse managers would send another trucker with correct update identification back to San Joaquin State Prison. But no — instead, AFC took the contents of the truck and distributed the food contents to all the other prisons within the state prison system that were experiencing ‘kosher for Passover’ food shortages. As a matter of fact, every year there are Passover food shortages. The food delivery never made it back and the prison was immediately thrust into a major food crisis. No Kosher food for Passover. What this meant was, if Passover food was NOT served at the prison during the Holiday of Passover the Jewish inmates would sue the State for violation of Religion First Amendment Rights; and that part, the SJ STATE Prison wanted nothing of it. Inmate appeals meant time, money and effort spent and wasted because of a real stupid issue. The executive staff of the prison did not wish to be sued by sixty-three Jews. Guess what happened? The food manager turned to me and said in a trumpety and blustery voice: “Rabbi do you know where we could get Kosher for Passover food in lightning speed- I mean quick -other wise we are in a mess.”
I thought to myself: “Now I have to fix the State’s problem.”
I responded to him and said, “I’ll see what I can do.” I immediately called all the Kosher food sources in Northern California and let me tell you, there were slim pickings because most Jews here are ninety percent assimilated Jews and are addicted to Chinese food. I finally contacted the New York Kosher Deli in Montclair and miraculously they carried Kosher For Passover TV Dinner Entrées: exactly the items we needed. I contacted the food manager — a shidduch was made, the deli was contracted for over four thousand dollars to serve my Jewish brothers. The downside was that it took the State three years to pay the very generous owner of the New York Kosher Deli in Montclair: the after effects of the financial crisis that hit the Department of Corrections. However, my mission was accomplished. AT LEAST WE HAD KOSHER FOOD FOR PASSOVER.
Every week I drive down from El Cerrito, California and navigate the horrendous serpentine evil Highway 880 where I witness, honest to God, auto accidents perpetually on a weekly basis. Just the other week I saw the aftermath of a head-on collision of a minivan and a sports car. It happened in at an intersection where there was construction going on and at a specific juncture there were no dividers and for some reason the sports car jumped the skimpy divider that was there crashing into a Van going no less than 72 mph. Finito. ZAP. The driver of the sports car died instantly.
On my way down to Happy Valley State Prison I was patient, just trying to get through this numbing hour of driving and could not wait to drive through Gilroy, Prunedale and the great farms of the Salad Bowl Valley Region. One last rain storm doused the area with enough rain to turn the Spanish- looking arid brown and yellow grazing zones into iridescent green jewels of sculpted hills for a change. Mostly black and white cows climbed and meandered in all the nooks and crannies of these redolent and sinuous hills. I always wished to snap a perfect picture but; my camera never could succeed the vision of my eyes. My memories however, have captured that vision of pastoral reflections. I stopped my Honda on the side of the road and saw lovely green hills sensuously curved like young intertwined lovers with farm buildings at the base, some of which appeared to be constructed like villas in Tuscany. Further down the road I saw fields of farmland that seemed to go on forever; stick-like humans sometimes dozens of weed cleaners walking down infinite rows. In some fields they were already picking vegetables of some sort and there stood in the middle of the field, a contraption which was a work station for workers to sort through the lettuce or broccoli onto a conveyer belt and there where workers who trimmed and packed these items into boxes. I saw in one field a circle of farm workers swinging their arms in left to right and right to left directions. This was amazing, for in the seven years of traveling I have seen this exercise circle only once. I saw mostly masked Latino farm workers bending down in the vast fields — servants of the Earth Goddess who get paid a pittance after working twelve hour days with no medical benefits whatsoever.
When I was a Hospital Chaplain Resident in Bay City Hospital and Medical College I saw a consistent stream of Mexican farm workers and their children admitted with severe respiratory and heart problems, needing at times extreme surgery or transplants. I always speculated upon that abundant use of pesticides in these fields caused these severe conditions. After working for twelve or so more hours in the fields they were huddled in buses taking them to places I know not. I saw in some fields a green luminosity that energized my mind. I kept on driving presuming that all the Passover Banquet paperwork was done and Passover was going to be celebrated excited my expectations.
I arrived at noon on the day the Passover Banquet services were scheduled. I showed my State ID at the front gate. The officers looked me over and checked my rolling valise. Let me go through gate number one-the outer gate of the prison. I walked up a long walkway around three hundred and ten feet or so. On each side was cultivated two singular lines of well cultivated roses: yellow, pink, deep crimson and white, interspersed with prickly fruit blossoming; its flowers appearing in the bright, hot, dry merciless sunshine as hallucinations of positivity. I walked up the stairs until I reached GATE # 2 of the prison. I showed my State ID again to an officer in the control booth who gave a cursory glance and buzzed me into the main section of the prison. I walked back to the control booth and showed my metal chits — metal coins that had the name WEITZ engraved upon it. These chits, in the size of half dollars made out of brass let me take out keys to the chapel where the services will be held. I walked to GATE #3 the Gateway to the Chapel. I inserted a six inch key into the outer door and then I fiddled around with a set of twenty two keys to open the door of office. I opened the door, started up my computer, looked into the glass window that faced into the main chapel to see if tables have been brought in so we would be able to celebrate Passover with honor as Brother Jesus looked down upon us from his eternal crucifixion at the front end of the chapel. “They’ re there,” I mumbled to myself as I sat at my desk. I had one hour before my guests would begin to arrive for the Annual Banquet Service. It was quiet for a couple of minutes.
Suddenly, the sirens began to scream throughout the prison. I looked outside into the endless hallway. The red lights had gone on and were flashing. That was code One! A full lock down of the prison was in process. A squad of six to ten custody officers appeared out of nowhere in green monkey suits, wearing black hats, fully armed, carrying large mace guns, big black shaped batons and head masks. They charged clumsily towards the hallway leading to the outside gates instead of the housing units where two thousand inmates are housed. No, they were heading outside either in front of the prison buildings or they were being called to another yard of the prison grounds or in the worst case scenario they were being called to another institution.
I yelled out to a hall officer:
“Where are they going?”
He yelled back: “Somewhere!”
My mind started racing OH NO! — there goes Passover. These guys are going to be so disappointed. I was electrified by what was happening in the moment: sirens, rushing men, all movement stopped, thousands of inmates on the yard lying prone and the sirens weren’t going off. This was big stuff: ‘What, a riot in the yards?’ I asked myself. Was it inmates attacking guards–highly unlikely. It must be an inmate on inmate riot, I speculated, perturbed that no one wanted to tell me what was going on. Nobody was talking to me. I closed the chapel up and walked up to the control booth, showed my card, they opened the inner gate, I walked into the cubicle waiting for the outer inner gate to buzz me out; walked into the administration building and witnessed a surreal scene for the first time in my career as a prison chaplain:
There were armed guards in front of the Wardens office and the Chief Deputy Wardens Office. It felt like there was an armed takeover. Something different was happening today. I walked out and saw another surreal vision: all the roads on the prison grounds are blocked by State Police Cars with their blue red lights twirling away. Was this an escape? It must be. I slowly (always walk slowly in prison if you walk fast people get nervous) walked to the Outside gate and turned to face the pear shaped six feet tall Officer Marwan, my Lebanese friend. I knew he would tell me. “Marwan! Wa Salamu Alekum. ”
“Aleikum a Sallam.”
“What’s going on?”
“There a lockdown.”
“I should not be telling you”
” Marwan. I have to know. I have the annual banquet in an hour and half. In the name of Allah, what’s really going on please!”
“Come into the office.” I walked into the office.
He began talking in a low rumble making sure that anyone walking into the cubicle could not pick up the conversation.
“I don’t know the sequence of events but it seems that a Supervisor in the Personnel Department was jealous of his girl friend who was starting to go out with another Supervisor. So Supervisor A threatened Supervisor B with bodily harm. Somehow the word got to the Investigation Squad and two hours ago they found pipe bombs in the trailer where Supervisor A lives in at the State Prison Trailer Park adjacent to the prison. Everything is shut down. All the roads at this campus and the roads leading to Roving Hills State Prison behind us in Toledo Mountains; they’re all shut down.”
“Will it affect services?” I asked breathlessly like an idiot.
“Rabbi,” His eyes are popping out as if I just lost my mind. “Rabbi…EVERYTHING IS DOWN DOWN DOWN DOWN!”
I decided right then, I was going to fight this lock down with whatever I had. We were going to have a Passover Banquet even with pipe bombs set to blow. I swore in the name of my grandfather Itsik Isaac Mandel. I walked briskly back to the main building, and luckily got back into my office and began making calls to anybody who might know what to do in this situation. I walked down to the Custody Captain’s office and convinced the secretary to see him immediately. She saw I was desperate and let me in.
I walked into his office and he is sorting out papers. He finally looked up at me and says: “Rabbi, I don’t have time with this lock down in progress. How can I help you?”
“Captain, I have an emergency. The annual Passover Banquet is about to happen or was about to happen but everything is locked down. Nothing is moving. This event took me six months of negotiating with all levels of the executive staff; memos signed off even by the Warden himself, God bless his soul. There are sixty-three inmates waiting to observe this religious holyday. Is there any way you could help in this situation?”
There was a long silence. Captain Gerona looked at me with his pencil mustache, black onyx eyes giving him the look of an entrepreneur rather than the captain of a custody unit in a very large state prison.
“You know,” he spoke in measured and well-enunciated words,
“Not only is this institution on lock down but Roving Hills State Prisons is also on lockdown. I don’t know. Is this really important to you Rabbi?”
“Captain. This is is it! Once a year. Big expectations. Very important Holiday.”
He does not respond. It is quiet in his office but chaos reigns everywhere else. I can watch him think and I can feel his decision emerging out of his brain.
“OK. Here’s what I’ll do for you. I will allow the Banquet to proceed under these conditions: Any inmate who is high security will not be allowed into the banquet due to the lockdown. Only low level inmates will be authorized to participate. Now, since there is a code red alarm going on the banquet will have to be set up in the visiting room. And since it will be held in the visiting room all inmates entering the room will be padded down by the officers. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” I knew the inmates would hate this procedure; being padded down to go to a religious event. They hate that- but did I have a choice now? I was damn lucky I could do anything in the midst of this disaster.
The Captain spoke again. “I will call all the housing units and the officer will get the show rolling.”
” Captain. You stepped to the plate. I appreciate your decision.”
Captain Gerona gave me a conspiratorial wink and turned back to the phone line.
Gerona put the word out to his boys and all the doors opened. It seemed to me there was a mystical opening of the minds and hearts of inmates and custody staff together. The Passover Banquet happened miraculously. This is how Passover unraveled, de-raveled and re-raveled in that auspicious year of tension and breakthroughs while sirens blared and lights flashed and everyone at the prison were tense and serious and proud of their correctional attitude; sixty three Jews entered into the Exodus from Egypt in their minds eye lifting their souls to unexpected places of hope and redemption.

Eliahu J. Klein is a long time teacher of Kabbalah and Chassidism. He is the author of A Mystical Haggadah: Teachings, Meditations and Stories on Passover and The Kabbalah of Creation. He is currently a Jewish Chaplain for the California Department of Corrections serving anyone with spiritual needs.

2 thoughts on “The Prison Rabbi: Impossible Passover Blues

  1. I can hardly believe it. The penal systems where I have worked, the ‘outsiders’ would have taken to ‘safety’ immediately. After a few times of this, it did occur to me that part of what might be going on was that those men who were there en masse to bring order….they were probably actually using a lot of the equipment that they brought with them.
    Our descendants will look back at penal conditions of this time, and be shocked.

  2. I am not Jewish but I love the Messiah , and I was wondering , . if you do not mind. why did you use the name of Allah. Is that not what the Muslim people use. when they kill dear people .
    Please help me to understand. I am very happy that this wonderful story had a beautiful ending.
    I am not being rude.
    Sincerely Shirley

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