Sure, there’ve been a few high-profile Jewish crooks over the years: Bernie Madoff, Jack Abramoff, and Mayer Lansky (who, despite not having “-off” in his name, was very much a dangerous criminal), to name a few. But, in spite of the (duh, obvious) fact that Jews are no less susceptible to a life a crime than any other religion or ethnicity, the image of a Jew in an orange jumpsuit wandering the prison yard is still one which seems foreign and out of place to many. That’s why a just-published essay by David Arenberg, currently serving a cumulative sentence of thirteen years for fraud, forgery, and theft (both vehicular and identity), is so fascinating. Posted on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, the essay “David Arenberg Reflects on Being Jewish in State Prison” offers a tantalizing, and heartbreaking glimpse into the jungle of jail-yard economics and identity politics.
Thus, it was precisely my own oppression by skinheads and others when I went to prison that has caused me to discover a Jewish identity and has allowed me to come into my own as a Jew. I had dealt with Nazis before […] but only in the aggregate, when I was part of a large force opposing a clearly unwelcome and alien presence. But on the prison yards, if Nazis are not in the mainstream, certainly hatred of Jews is taken for granted. And for most of the time I have been in prison I have been the only Jew here. As a result, the isolation and extreme prejudice against Jews here has finally forced me to consider myself to be, for the first time in my life, fundamentally a Jew; that is, I am a Jew before I am a socialist, an activist, a lawyer, a convict or a musician.
Arenberg details the highly segmented and ritualized ecosystem of where and when he is allowed to eat in the dining hall, the rules regarding inmates participating in multi-race sports, and how he’s found shelter (of sorts) under the wing of the Aryan Brotherhood in the face of the younger, more virulent anti-semitism of the prison’s Skinhead population. The entire experience is both chilling, and oddly affirming, as Arenberg describes his hopes that when he leaves prison (in four years) he will be a changed man who, through the crucible of incarceration, has finally connected with the Jewish identity he ignored for much of his life.
The entire essay can be found on the SPLC website, and is well worth a look.