Passover, Parenting and Pardons


This year, I have exhausted Passover’s eight days writing love letters to President Obama.  My letters all close with the same refrain:  “Let my clients GO!”   Is it a prophecy that Passover’s final day – April 30 – coincides with our clemency deadline?
In 2014 the Justice Department announced an Obama initiative to invite inmates with no significant criminal history, a record of good prison conduct, no history of violence before or during the term of incarceration, who have served over ten years on a federal sentence for a non-violent offense to apply for clemency.
Obama’s clemency project seeks to right the wrong.  Some days it feels more like he’s hiding than seeking.
The more the clemency love is withheld, the more singularly determined we become to part the Red Sea of the Pardon Committee.  It started innocently enough – laws in the 1990s aimed at ending the war on drugs.   The inevitable result however, was the mass incarceration of a generation of young people, mostly of color, and not too many degrees of separation from Egypt’s enslaved Jews.  True, Israelites hadn’t profited from kilo quantities of cocaine, but they also hadn’t been born into slavery: the slavery of being in utero addicted to crack, the slavery of poverty, the slavery of, well, a history of slavery and oppression. 
Preparing for Passover, I felt the irony of searing twenty pounds of brisket for 40 of my friend’s closest relatives, all the while turning in my head as I rotated the meat for five hours: how I would I gain safe passage to freedom for my clients?
And so I decided:  this year’s Passover story meant effectuating the Exodus of few worthy souls from the tyranny of federal sentencing laws on steroids.   I had to write between briskets, however.
My youngest child, Rabbi Sam as we fondly call him, knew more Hebrew at this year’s Seder than I have learned over the course of a half century.  His Judaic knowledge confirmed his commitment to his people, in the same way, and perhaps because, his parents were likewise committed to theirs.  Sam’s middle name is Gideon, after Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court case which solidified the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a lawyer in most criminal matters regardless of wealth, fitting for the child of two lifelong defenders (of course my Aunt remarked in her cloying voice upon hearing the meaning underlying his name, “So, you named him after a criminal.”  The defender gene skipped her generation).
Though I couldn’t follow what Rabbi Samuel Gideon espoused in Hebrew, I do know from Matzah.  At our Seder we put out a fourth matzah to spark discussion about a current day atrocity and our concomitant responsibilities.   (I hate it when you ask kids to be thoughtful and they ask when a Syrian family can come live in your rather large home; I’m not worthy of my sixteen year old daughter’s indomitable  righteousness).
This year, in my heart, as well as my laptop, the fourth matzah was for clemency clients.
I am as uncompromised on my convictions about public defending as I am questioning of my contradictions as a Jew:  I am secular and atheist.  My older children were Hebrew school drop outs and youngest is in elementary school at a Jewish Day school.  From parents like us it is not surprising that in Kindergarten Sam got in a bit of a kosher pickle when he overheard other kids talking about their good buddy, “God,” and retorted that he didn’t think there actually WAS a God.  The parental response was almost as bad as the phone calls I received ten years earlier from my daughters’ friends’ parents when my girls – in their Baltimore City public school where they were in the minority as white girls and Jews — advised the class that there was no Santa Claus.
While religion makes me break out in small to medium sized hives, I am not a contradiction of a public defender: We will ceaselessly write desperate love letter-like petitions until sunset Saturday.  As the deadline nears, we struggle with the dearth of clemency grants and the ominous feeling that three or more of the ten plagues will strike us down.
We fear that the process is as inclement as locust laced rain.
Dear President Obama: Why is this clemency petition different from all other petitions?  Avadim Hayinu.  Always be mindful that but for our good fortunes, any of us could walk in degradation.  It is a calling and a gift to work in the name of redemption.
Dedicated to Sapna Mirchandani

Kathryn Frey-Balter, lawyer, adjunct professor, mother and CEO of a sprawling and bustling family who writes personal essays in her abundance of spare time.

One thought on “Passover, Parenting and Pardons

  1. Kathy,
    So happy to share a school community together with you. I too was blown away by my son’s Hebrew capabilities at seder this year.
    Our tradition is one of questioning…it’s the questions, not the answers. that provide the spice of a rich, deep Jewish life.

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