Her Jewish Roots Grow in Prison Soil

My father was a motorman on the subway in New York City and my mother was a housewife. When I was 10 years old, my father died from lung cancer. My mother was a strict disciplinarian and suffered in silence with severe depression. I believe she was also bipolar because I never knew, at the end of the school day, what mood she would be in when I returned home. I suffered years of abuse at my mother’s hands. The abuse was both verbal and physical and it left me with a great deal of suppressed anger and lack of self-esteem. I never got over the loss of my father, who I saw as the “good” parent. As an adult, I married unsuccessfully four times. I think I was always looking for a father figure and did not know how to have a normal marital relationship. Plus, over the years, my unresolved anger issues from my childhood constantly got in the way.

As an adult, I worked as a labor and delivery nurse for over 20 years. Before coming to Tennessee, I lived in Las Vegas for 15 years where I met a man who was a nuclear engineer and worked at a test site right outside of Las Vegas. We dated for a year and married. When the test site closed, he was transferred to Oakridge, TN, so I quit my job and went with him. We divorced after three years, and it was only several years later that I met and married my last husband. We were married for five years. He was emotionally abusive.

I came to prison when I was 53 years old, as the result of a domestic dispute that got way out of hand. My husband was not physically abusive, but was very controlling, and one day, in an argument, something just snapped in me. I am serving a 25-year sentence for second degree murder. Since coming to prison, seven years ago, I have faced my demons and have worked hard to overcome my past failures. For the first time in my life, I started studying the Torah and have connected to my Jewish roots. I now know how to “think Jewish” and through emuna, faith, I have developed a much healthier outlook on life. I am blessed with studies, books, and print-outs which are sent to me by the Aleph Institute and by you. 

Did you feel Jewish stirrings before your incarceration? And how does it feel to be celebrating Passover, a festival of freedom, when you are behind bars?

Learning Torah concepts and putting them to use in my daily life has given me a lot of much-needed strength. I feel as though I finally know who I am and how I should interact with others. The book The Garden of Emuna (by Rabbi Shalom Arush) was life changing for me. Since embracing the belief that every situation we’re placed in and every person we encounter is custom designed for us by Hashem, I live a more grateful life. I realize now that I should look at each situation, even difficult ones, as an opportunity to learn and/or make teshuva for past misdeeds. I now look for the holiness in everything and when I go out into the prison population everyday I understand that even though I must interact with people and try to make the world a better place, I must also not allow myself to ever forget that I am part of a nation of priests, from whom G-d expects certain things. I truly believe that had I been raised with an openly Jewish, religious background, I would have had the knowledge and skills that would have helped me live a much happier, more successful life.

Yes, Passover is a holiday of freedom. But you see, there are two different kinds of freedom — mental and physical. I still experience a great deal of mental freedom. My mind does not live in here. It’s out there. It’s on my religious studies and my friends and the people that I write to in the free world. Through my religious studies, I have gained mental freedom. Even though my physical body is in exile, my mind is no longer.

You are an adult embracing your Judaism under constraints. How does living in prison make it difficult to figure out where you fit in Judaism, especially because you’re not living in a Jewish community? Do you feel you’d describe yourself as Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, for example?

Not being able to be active in a Jewish community is one of my greatest regrets. I am the only Jewish woman in this prison at this time and sometimes the sense of isolation is overwhelming. There are Christian services and functions of every denomination but my Jewish services and festivals have to be held alone. Since I decided to give myself the religious education I was denied as a child, I have read materials and explored (in books) the lifestyles of every “type” of Judaism. Rabbi Rice has generously supplied me with reading materials that explore the opinions and daily expressions that come from every facet of Judaism from far left to far right. I have a Jewish pen pal in Germany who is Conservative. She sends me printed materials and shares the way she lives as a Conservative Jewish woman. The Lubavitchers, who founded the Aleph Institute I study with, share the Chassidic outlook on life and have helped me learn how to live a Torah-true lifestyle with strict observance of halakhic law.

At this point, I still can’t say where I will “fit” into the Jewish community if I outlive my sentence and live again in the free world. I am still struggling with the concept of living Torah law as it can be applied in the modern time in which we live. How many of the attitudes toward women are “law” and how many were cultural from Biblical times is a subject that I think about frequently. While I would never underestimate the importance of the role a Jewish mother plays in running a “kosher” home, I also think Jewish women should be as valued as men are if they decide their calling in life is outside the home, or as rabbis. I also see nothing wrong with a Jewish woman wearing a tallit while she prays. I probably could live an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle when I get out, but I think it would eventually cause me to feel “suppressed.” I think I will fit best in a Jewish community where everyone, no matter their sex or level of observance, is loved by their fellow Jews as they should be.

Having had the experience that you did, and now in prison today, what advice might you offer to other women on the outside, Jewish or non-Jewish?

Knowing what I know now, I would advise girls and women to learn how to set boundaries. Respect yourself, and demand that others do the same. Don’t put yourself in the position of depending upon a man to support you. Have a career and consider it as important as your husband’s because you never know when you will be on your own. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, get out as soon as you can. Even if you have to start over, it is better in the long run than risking the situation I and so many other women find ourselves in. Develop a network of good friends and call upon them when you need emotional support. I would also say…help other women in difficult situations. When you do, you will find inner strength that you never knew you had.

Linda, you’re the only Jewish woman in this place. How does a Jew live Jewishly when self-determination is suppressed by the prison system? We like to say that Judaism is a verb, but clearly your actions are limited.

Actually, I have not found that living within the restrictive prison system has totally eliminated my ability to reach out and live Judaism as a verb. In recent years I have been an activist for Jewish religious rights with the Tennessee prison system. I reach out to other Jewish inmates through the mail and try to help them feel less isolated. Through our letters, I share studies and Jewish thought with them, and show my love for my fellow Jew by making sure they get to hear their name at mail call so they know someone still cares for them. I also interact with the Christian community here in the prison to do my best in fostering better relations between Christians and Jews. I have shared with the Christian inmates information on Pesach, the seder meal, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and many other topics that help them to understand and have tolerance for another faith other than their own. It’s one of the benefits of working in the education system here.

So, for example, as part of the social studies lesson for the week, I asked our instructor if I could offer a presentation on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, as part of the weekly lesson. And every year, the Methodist group that comes to visit us puts on a seder meal. Granted, this seder meal is from a Christian perspective, but I always attend and teach about the Jewish seder and the Jewish views on the scriptural texts. I find them to be very welcoming and appreciative of my contributions. In these ways, even though I’m in prison, I believe I live much more “Jewishly” than I ever did.

It’s really wonderful that you feel that way, because celebrating the holidays and keeping many Jewish observances is, in fact, so challenging for you in prison, if not impossible at times. You only recently have been able to receive kosher meals, due in large part to Aleph’s advocating on your behalf. What would you say is the most challenging aspect of prison life for you as a Jewish woman?

In my opinion, selfishness, to some degree, is what brought us all to prison. Whether we took drugs, drove drunk, robbed, murdered, abused or neglected children, these are all selfish acts that were committed without regard for the cost to others. Once an already selfish person arrives in prison, they then encounter a situation where people, if they don’t receive help from people on the outside, struggle to have more than just the very basic necessities for life. The prison provides you with prison uniforms, basic bedding, and 1800 calories per day. Beyond that, you are on your own. Writing supplies, recreational clothing and shoes, small appliances, medical co-pays, hygiene items, and extra food all have to be purchased by the inmate. Some women get help and many do not. The extent of the need in here can affect an inmate in two different ways. It can bring out the best, or the worst in a person. You can get the attitude that you are “not your sister’s keeper” or you can have compassion for someone who is hungry and doesn’t have a stamp to write home. Then again, no matter how much you want to help others, inmate-to-inmate transfer of any property is technically illegal and can bring you a write-up if you are caught. Most inmates will do whatever they have to in order to gain favoritism that benefits them, or maybe them and their inner circle of friends. Few and far between are inmates who care about improving the general conditions for everyone. Living within this atmosphere can be a positive experience, though. For someone who genuinely wants to change for the better, it’s like holding a mirror up to yourself, seeing how you used to be, and determining to do better. There are also some wonderful, caring, generous volunteers who come into the prisons and give of themselves to help us. These volunteers are always Christian. They provide exercise classes, book clubs, holiday celebrations, and many more programs that let the women know that even though they have made mistakes, they are still loved and valued. By watching these volunteers from the free world, I have seen the importance of offering a hand-up to someone who is as far down as they get. I would encourage more Jewish women to become involved with prison programs that offer inmates a chance to learn and improve before re-entering society.

If you could communicate one thing to Jewish women on the outside, one lesson, one message, what would it be?

While the percentage of the Jewish population that’s in American prisons is small, the Jews who are in prison need the help of their fellow Jews in the free world so that they can still feel as though they belong to a community. Maintaining one’s Yiddishkeit in prison is a constant struggle. One has to fight with the authorities for kosher meals, time off from work on the mandated festivals and holy days, the ability to keep Shabbat, equal time to use the chapel space where Christian services tend to dominate, etc. These constant battles wear an inmate down, and we need encouragement and support from the Jewish community. If the sum message of Torah is to love your fellow man as you love yourself, then how can anyone believe they are living a Torah-true life when they don’t reach out in some small way to their fellow Jews who are in prison? 

Rabbi Laurie Rice is co-senior rabbi of Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tennessee, where she shares the pulpit with her husband.