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Observing Passover in Prison


Switching gears now, you probably know that Passover begins today at sundown. The holiday, one of the most important in the Jewish calendar, commemorates the story of Moses and how he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. But the holiday resonates beyond Judaism because it is also a celebration of freedom, and that caused us to wonder how the celebration of Passover is complicated by those who are unfree, those who are in prison, for example.

That's something Aviva Orenstein also wondered. She's written an article about Passover in prison for a forthcoming issue of the Pepperdine Law Review. It's titled "Once We Were Slaves, Now We Are Free: Legal and Spiritual Aspects of Passover in Prison." She's also a professor at Indiana University's School of Law, Maurer School of Law.

Thanks so much for joining us, Professor Orenstein.

AVIVA ORENSTEIN: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Also with us for additional perspective is Jack Abramoff. He is a former lobbyist who served time in federal prison for fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion and he is also an observant Jew who participated in Passover rituals during his three years behind bars. And you may remember that he's also the author of a book called "Capitol Punishment."

Thank you so much for joining us again, Mr. Abramoff.

JACK ABRAMOFF: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Professor Orenstein, how did you start thinking about the complexity of celebrating Passover in prison? I understand that you grew up in a religious home. Your father and sister are both rabbis. What made you think about Passover in prison?

ORENSTEIN: I first started - it's kind of a weird story. I was just on the legal search engine and I put in Passover Seder. I was teaching family law at the time and I found what I expected, which was divorced parents fighting over who was going to get the kids for the Seder. But what surprised me was how many of the cases were about prisoners requesting Seders.

MARTIN: Jack Abramoff, what about you? When you first realized that you were going to prison - I think many people may remember that you are a very observant Jew and your observance is important enough to you that even, as you recount in your book, when you were invited to, say, a lunch at the White House, you would not eat the food because it wasn't kosher. So, when it came time to celebrate Passover, were you able to observe?

ABRAMOFF: Yes. Federal prison - by law, they make accommodations for religious beliefs and they provided us with kosher for Passover food in abundance and there were no issues other than one of the years I was there, there was a notion that they were going to truncate the time we needed to do the Passover Seder, but they backed off from that.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, about the spiritual aspect? I mean, as the observant know, a part of the Seder is the utterance of the words, once we were slaves, now we are free. Being in prison, was that painful for you? And how did you reflect upon those words?

ABRAMOFF: It was painful. We had the Jews who were at the prison with me - we came together to do the Passover Seders and we included people who were both religious and not religious and, when we got to the various passages in the Seder that talk about moving from slavery to freedom, it was very emotional for us.

Now, obviously, we weren't in a prison at the level of the Jews and Israelites were in Egypt, where the deprivations were extraordinary. But still, losing the freedom, not having an ability to be free, yet having these moments of discussion of freedom was very emotional for everybody in the room. And it wasn't a matter of celebrating other freedoms because when you've lost the main freedoms, you know, your focus is on that and that's where ours was.

ORENSTEIN: Michel, can I tell you about one man I was - I've been corresponding with in Tomoko, Florida? He's in prison for life. I think it was a three strikes and you're out. He was a burglar and he said, on the outside, he was very materialistic, stole to get more stuff and once he was in prison he had to come up with a different definition of freedom. And maybe his pharaoh and maybe his Egypt was his desire to steal and that maybe he thought God put him in this place for a reason.

And there was a woman in California who said, I only became free once I got in jail and stopped being addicted to drugs. And, obviously, not everyone has this reaction, but I think this Seder is going to be more meaningful for me thinking about those people and the fact that they couldn't have thought of freedom merely as physical freedom.

MARTIN: The other interesting thing, though, Professor Orenstein, that you were talking about in your piece is this whole question of how scrupulous one needs to be in one's observation of the religion in order to receive the accommodation to participate in these rituals, and I wonder about that because there's always this interesting dialog about who is a Jew.

ORENSTEIN: That's right.

MARTIN: Who gets to be considered Jewish and, you know...

ORENSTEIN: And you'd hate for prison administrators to have to make that call.

MARTIN: Do they?

ORENSTEIN: Well, the standard in the law is who has a sincere religious belief? And they need something to figure it out because I will say my research has indicated there are fakers. There are people who are in it for the grape juice. One guy was spotted selling his matzo in the yard. There are people who change religions as soon as they figure out what diet they like best and often the kosher food is a superior diet to the regular prison fare. So it's understandable that this very expensive food should not just be given out if people don't have a religious reason for it.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you, Jack Abramoff. Did you care who was truly observant in your own view and who wasn't?

ABRAMOFF: The rule in federal prison is you can declare a religion and there were certainly guys who - at the prison I was at - who declared not Judaism, but they declared Hebrew Israelite as their religion so as to get kosher food and to get the kosher for Passover food.

But, you know, when you're in prison, you don't really begrudge people - other inmates, at least - you don't begrudge them things and you don't resent somebody else getting something because everybody's in this same sort of wallowing misery. I wasn't the only observant Jew in the prison. There were two others and neither one of them - they were of Hasidic background - neither one of them minded that non-Jews declared themselves when they did as Jewish.

MARTIN: You've taken responsibility for the acts that sent you to prison. OK?


MARTIN: And I wonder, does that offer a dimension to your thoughts about your freedom or lack thereof? Because no one deserves slavery.

ABRAMOFF: I think, because I took and take responsibility for what I did and, in many ways, different than a lot of the other inmates. Many of the inmates there - and I think this is probably true in most prisons - they feel that they were imprisoned improperly and unfairly. I think, when one believes that there is some purpose for why one is someplace and someplace horrible, it's easier to get through it and those that didn't accept the reasons they were there, it was far more difficult. So, for me, it was easier, especially during that time.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. This is not your first Passover since you were released, since you've regained your physical freedom. I wanted to ask, though. Has Passover taken on a different meaning to you?

ABRAMOFF: Well, not necessarily a different meaning to me. Actually, this Passover - I've only been out a few years. This is the first time that my entire immediate family will be together, so there may be some emotional issues, you know, in terms of all of us, as there was the first Friday night that I got out and we were able to sit at the Sabbath table together. We were teary because it had been so long and we had been through so much pain.

And I anticipate at our Passover Seder, that we will look at each other and probably well up in tears at the memories of the past and of the difficult and the good times, so - but thank God we're on the other side of this.

ORENSTEIN: I want to quote Charles Johnson , who is the man who is in prison for life in Tomoko. He said, you can imprison my body, but you cannot imprison my mind. And, for me, that raises the question. I know my body's not in prison, so how's my mind in prison?

MARTIN: Aviva Orenstein is a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and she's written about the way Jewish prisoners celebrate Passover and she was kind enough to join us in our bureau in New York. Jack Abramoff is the author of the memoir, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist." He was with us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

May I wish you both a Happy Passover?

ORENSTEIN: (Foreign language spoken) to you.

ABRAMOFF: (Foreign language spoken).


MARTIN: Just ahead, you would think appearing on national television for weeks on end would prepare you for the glitz and glam of super stardom, but not necessarily.

CRYSTAL BOWERSOX: I had no clue how to get into that community in Hollywood or L.A. or whatever it takes to, quote, "make it."

MARTIN: But she got through it and now "American Idol" alum Crystal Bowersox is with us. She has a new album. It's called "All That For This" and she tells us more about it coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: Racial and ethnic minorities are becoming the majority in this country sooner than expected and, for many people, this rapid change will be a challenge.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's going to be a real challenge to educate those older folks that these people are really important.

MARTIN: We'll talk about that next time on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.