May 20, 2019

Pesach in Prison

Last Passover was “the season of our freedom,” as it was for millennia before, as it is today. However, last year I experienced this freedom while in the 16th year of my incarceration, an incarceration that had begun when I was a teenager. This year was qualitatively different. Baruch HaShem, this year I experienced Passover as a free man. 

The first question regarding my Jewish experience is how does a first-generation American black man, son of an illegal- immigrant Jamaican father and immigrant Sri Lankan mother, connect to a religion that celebrates freedom no matter the circumstances one finds oneself in? As a formerly agnostic gangster, inclined to rebellion and primed to approach religion with a patronizing contempt, I stumbled across my first rabbi, Joseph Hample, while I was in the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison. He was able to withstand my relentless probing, which was meant to disturb what I thought were other people’s fragile sandcastles of existential refuge. From that initial contact, a seed was planted. Later, Rabbi Lon Moskowitz, who for six years I would work for as the lead Jewish clerk at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, facilitated the process by giving me the room to grow into who I had always been. 

Rabbi Moskowitz was also instrumental in securing Passover donations from the non profit Aleph Institute that assists Jewish prisoners, the Northern California Board of Rabbis and other thoughtful souls. Our band of misfits, convicted felons of all stripes, managed to celebrate the season of our freedom within the constraints of oppressional forces specifically designed to restrict our freedom. We celebrated together as a community, connected to a tradition that liberated time, and with it, us. 

“Our band of prison misfits, convicted felons of all stripes, managed to celebrate the season of our freedom within the constraints of oppressional forces specifically designed to restrict our freedom. We celebrated together as a community, connected to a tradition that liberated time, and with it, us.”

Judaism was special to us and we were able to find the meaning of freedom while trapped in the narrowing straits of our own Mitzrayim, because Passover is part and parcel of what Judaism is about. It isn’t so much a faith as it is an ancestral heritage, forged from a people’s perception, connection and relationship to the source of all being. Judaism didn’t place the primacy of this living religion on theological abstractions. Its emphasis is on action; concretized rituals designed to help us transcend physical limitations. 

Many inmates scoffed at why I would want to circumscribe my freedom by adhering to an internal code of conduct at the very same time that my freedom was being circumscribed by an external force. And yet, I found more freedom in a free-will dedication to actions that connected with a higher purpose than merely trying to maximize biological drives and typical, socially constructed values; each mitzva habituating me to live up to the image of God. 

I eschewed postmodernism’s subjective refrain in exchange for an individual’s vicarious experience through the proto-Jews perspective, lost and found in the collective consciousness of a timeless people tethered to an eternal being who cares. The Exodus was not simply a “freedom from …,” but a “freedom to …” We are celebrating the Divine deliverance from oppression only in that it led to the Jewish people making a free-will choice to submit to a covenantal relationship with this ultimate higher power, to aspiringly clutch to timeless values and ethical imperatives of justice that have been relentlessly pursued across the Jewish historical landscape. In each epoch, a Mitzrayim rearing its ugly head only to become the fulcrum of God’s outstretched redemptive hand.

As meaningful as a Passover seder in prison can be, freedom while incarcerated can only be experienced to a limited extent, and only for the duration of a conscious effort that eventually taxes even the most Pollyanna-ish of prisoners. Our seder never was allowed to start on time, and it could never go past 8:30 p.m., agents of the state subverting halachah through its control of our access to utilize our time in the full exercise of religious freedom. Security checks, correctional officers’ keys jangling dissonant chords to freedom’s song; the 13th Amendment’s stigma of legitimized slavery hanging around our necks; the promise of going to sleep and waking up without our families, and without the freedom to pursue our hopes and aspirations, left chametz that a fully observed Passover in prison couldn’t completely scrub away.

However, this Passover, I learned about the luxury of liberation while drinking a glass of wine with a free Jewish community in Irvine — a cacophony of children’s laughter, and men and women covering the generational spectrum, hailing from Mexico, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe and other national origins, bound together with the continuity of Jewish souls and experiences throughout the millennia, as one people, Klal Yisrael.

I drank my cups of redemption as a free man, the sweetness of the Shehecheyanu bracha infusing holiness into that moment of time, “Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, king of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this season.”

Amen.


Omar Pryce was released early from prison in October of 2018 after serving over 16 years of a 24-year prison sentence. He is finishing undergraduate studies in sociology with an emphasis in social welfare and currently works as a program and case manager to provide stable housing for Los Angeles County’s homeless population. He is in the process of an Orthodox conversion to Judaism.