February 22, 2019

Kosher Food is a Prison Favorite

“According to the 2013 numbers, Jews are 7 percent of the state prison population of New York; the fourth largest religious denomination after Protestant, Catholic and Muslim (in that order). If the numbers were accurate it would mean that nearly twice as many Jews were locked up that year as members of the Nation of Islam. But the truth is that many inmates lie and claim to be Jewish once they enter the prison system. And why do they do it? Not as a hedge against the impending arrival of the Moshiach. They do it for the kosher food.

At a minimum, New York state offers every Jew a standardized pre-packaged meal certified to be glatt kosher. In one facility, however, they get something even better. Greenhaven CF, a maximum security prison holding 2,500 people, of whom most are lifers, has the only hot kosher program in the state. The prison has a dedicated kitchen which observes all the intricacies of kashrut by separating meat and milk meals, pulling apart cabbage instead of cutting it (lest a treif bug hide between the leaves) and even blow-torching the ovens for Pesach. I got lucky and ate there for four years; others make a transfer to Greenhaven the object of their bid, since seeing its end may not be a possibility.

The hot kosher program has an Orthodox facility rabbi to oversee things, but our mashgiach during my tenure was Ronnie, an Israeli sex offender. The rules are observed meticulously. Hasidim like the 300-pound Phil Drelich, halfway through his 50-to-life and a fixture of the program, worked behind the counter. Russian gangsters, Lubavitchers, Israeli ecstasy smugglers, Bobovers, grown-up Hebrew school bullies, crooked brokers, me, and a killer veterinarian ate their cooking

In most other times and places, lying about Judaism went the other way. Conversos in Spain pretended to convert to Catholicism while keeping Jewish practices alive. In the Soviet Union, having JEW stamped in one’s passport was a well-known and life-long limiting factor. Thanks to my grandfather’s efforts, my own father was a Russian according to his USSR passport and his brother a Ukrainian. In the U.S. of the last century, the Ivy League schools limited the number of clever Jews they accepted, which is why New York’s humble City College produced a number of Nobel Prize winners competitive with its vastly more expensive and exclusive alternatives. But in prison, the kosher food was good enough to reverse the course of history.”

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