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The Surprising Popularity of Kosher Food in Prison

Seder plates and kosher meals are so popular behind bars some inmates convert just to get them

Daniel Genis
January 15, 2019
Photo by meesh, Flickr CC
Photo by meesh, Flickr CC
Photo by meesh, Flickr CC
Photo by meesh, Flickr CC

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.

Inside, we had hot dogs no worse than Nathan’s, a weekly chicken quarter, various Sephardic rices and a fantastic lump of gefilte fish every Saturday morning to go with our grape juice kiddish. It was also worth something. When the Jewish biker Brian got a job behind the counter, he quickly made a good gesehft out of it. Watching him smuggle bags of 50 hot dogs out to the yard and pull them out of his pants for anyone with a stamp to spend was comical.

Sometimes, access to the means of production caused conflict as well. It was an ugly day when Hasidic Yakov had his beard pulled and was head butted by a shady stockbroker over cheese dispersal during dairy week. However, he was no stranger to violence; Yakov had murdered his wife in front of their dozen children, who testified against him in court through a Yiddish translator.

With only 70 slots available and many more applicants, how did the rabbi decide whom to let in without leaving the facility vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit? In Orthodox Judaism, one is Jewish if he has a Jewish mother or has gone through a conversion process. It is impossible to halachically convert as a prisoner. However, the state allows one to be registered in any faith that the convict declares. Change of religion is possible once a year, though not for inmates in solitary confinement. This means that the Jewish congregations of the 70 prisons in New York state are mostly composed of men that the rabbis cannot halachically consider Jewish with the exception of the single Reform rabbi working for the DOC. She is also a woman and got the job through a lawsuit; Orthodox rabbis had always been hired because they can minister to both the Reform and more observant Jews. However, they were all men as a woman cannot become a rabbi in Orthodox Judaism, so a Reform lady rabbi had a winning argument in court. I clerked for her; she was a wonderful woman.

The rabbis pencil in the words ‘self-declared’ on the corner of the document which follows each prisoner from compound to hoosegow. In Yiddish. I was saved from the damning words by a phone call made to my parents, but the men who knew me well did not count me for a minyan because my Judaism is inherited paternally. Nevertheless, I ate from the hot kosher kitchen while the majority of ‘Jews’ received the CAD, or “cold alternative diet.” Unlike the two-month rotation of the regular diet, which repeated certain meals but gave 60 days intervals for most, the CAD was monotony in plastic wrap. The meals were on a seven-day rotation, but all breakfasts were identical and the variety for dinner was between sealed slices of bologna, salami or turkey cold cuts. They came with a daily styrofoam cup of instant soup. Vacuum packed cheese was lunch three times a week; packets of peanut butter and jelly, boiled eggs and sealed cups of tuna salad made up the rest.

Becoming Jewish to get on the hot kosher diet is understandable. Doing so for the CAD, which the overwhelming majority received, is harder to justify. Some of the sincerely religious Muslims preferred it. The regular state diet is preemptively halal because of the numbers of Muslims, but this designation wasn’t trusted by sincere believers more inclined to have faith in the kosher food than the main chow line.

However, for most the lure of kosher was in the packaging. Because it had to be indisputably correct and even Glatt, almost all the components came sealed in sturdy plastic. There was no chance of the cheese being sliced by a fleishig knife. The eggs came in buckets of something like formaldehyde, ensuring they were boiled in appropriate pots. During Pesach, chometz was definitively avoided by vacuum sealing everything and handing out individual boxes of matzo. Milk and juice came sealed, tuna salad and fruit in syrup arrived in hermetic cups. The kosher meals were boring and tasted bad, but they were tamper-proof, which provided a measure of confidence not only in their religious authority but also that they had not been tampered with by other inmates.

The packaging of the food doesn’t just benefit paranoiacs and those with enemies working in the kitchen. Items that came in individual plastic wraps were ready-made as commodities for the prison barter system. This was particularly common in the hermetic society of prisoners serving time in SHU, or Special Housing Units. There are thousands of men doing years in solitary, so a culture of its own exists. Capitalism flourishes; stamps are the currency and anything that can fit through the half inch slot under the door is for sale. Converting to Judaism and then selling off the cold cuts and peanut butter was such a common survival strategy that the rules were changed 10 years ago. While prisoners in general population can change their religion once a year, those in SHU cannot do so at all, at least until they are released from the box. Nevertheless, during each of my four short trips to the prison inside of the prison, there was always kosher food available for sale. I witnessed an extreme example in a dedicated SHU facility on the Canadian border.

In the upstate SHU, a pair of white supremacists converted to Judaism competed for buyers against a pair of Nation of Islam brothers who were also getting kosher. Solitary comes in pairs in New York; my bunky bought from the skinheads and I shopped with the black supremacists for better deals. Both sets of salesmen felt some need to explain that they actually hated Jews and had converted for kosher food in order to exploit them. I was geographically closer to the Nazis and had an easier time talking to them, which required yelling through a vent. They were both from small places upstate; I asked why they hated Jews so much. “Because they are so fucking stupid!” was the reply. I felt no need to explain myself to people who had likely never met a Jew, and spent my 90 days in the box without losing a pound of weight. They spent my stamps on marijuana; the munchies must have been cruel to them

The tenfold exaggeration of the number of incarcerated Jews in the state books only matters in a few cases. The Orthodox need for a minyan of 10 adult Jews, gets muddled. Yom tovs are influenced; every Purim, Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Sukkot, Jewish organizations donate supplies for observing the holidays and send treats. Aleph, out of Florida, sent amazing Passover boxes with gefilte fish and dreidels every year. But they need to know how many Jews will realistically need shmurah matzo and charoset. The facility rabbis cannot tell them; they are legally not permitted to differentiate between Jews and “self-declared” Jews. As a result, the charitable organizations ask the incarcerated.

I corresponded with a certain Rabbi Spritzer for 10 years. Inevitably, he asked me for the real number of Jews in the congregation, to know how many gift boxes to send. Not only do I oppose any engineering of a free market, I never snitched on anyone. But in this case, I interfered in the supply and demand of kosher food for sale in prison … and I disclosed the number of men I knew to be born of a Jewish mother, with a few extra thrown in to give guys the benefit of the doubt. For all the abuse that the kosher programs are put through upstate, I wanted to do the right thing. Making kosher food available to Jews who had not done the right thing was a kindness I wasn’t sure we deserved. It was the least I could do.

Daniel Genis is a writer, journalist, and ex-con living in Brooklyn with his wife. His memoir of a decade behind bars will be released by Penguin next year.