Good Jewish boys don’t go to prison: Avi Steinberg’s two years at The Bay

by Michael Orbach

Fresh out of Harvard University with a degree in English literature, Avi Steinberg did the only thing a former-yeshiva student could do. He went to a maximum-security prison.

“I guess I ended up in prison like a lot of people: by accident,” Steinberg laughed.

Steinberg is the author of “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian,” (Doubleday) a non-fiction account of the two years he spent as a librarian in “The Bay,” The Suffolk County House of Corrections in Boston. Steinberg, who was born in Israel and attended Maimonides in Boston, said the job “was a dream.”

“If you love books, people take it seriously,” he explained. “Having a library is not taken for granted. It’s easy to get a book in the outside world… but over there it’s precious and people just get that.”

Steinberg got the job after answering an ad on Craigslist. Once there, he fashioned the prison library, about the size of a small public library, into what he calls a type of “beit meidrash.” He gave creative writing courses to the mostly black inmates and said, rather than feeling threatened, he felt appreciated.

“Books create relationships,” Steinberg said.

The most requested book was “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Green, a modern version of “The Art of War,” which the library refused to stock. The second most requested items were books about dream interpretations, which reminded Steinberg of Joseph’s experience in prison in Egypt that he learned in Chumash class.

What surprised him most about the prison atmosphere was the casualness and humor of it. In one anecdote he didn’t put in the book, Steinberg watched as new inmates were marched into the prison. Catching the eye of one hardened long-time inmate, one of the new prisoners yelled out, “I need to borrow your flip-flops!”

“What are we, in summer camp?” Steinberg recalled asking.

The prison atmosphere was full of what he calls casual anti-Semitism, but that didn’t really bother him.

“I kind of appreciated the honesty even if it was unpleasant,” Steinberg explained. “There was a grudging respect: You [Jews] take care of your own, we should learn from that.”

In one of the books most memorable passages, a gang member raps admirably about how he’s seen Chasidim with their “gangs.” When Steinberg admitted that he was no longer religious, the inmates gave him flak.

“[They asked] why aren’t you Orthodox now?” he recalled. “Where you come from and who you’re affiliated with — it’s loyalty. These guys were talking to me like rabbis, ‘You should keep Shabbos, what’s the problem?’”

During his second year, Steinberg was robbed at gunpoint outside his apartment. His mugger recognized him from the prison. When a terrified Steinberg admitted he was the librarian, the mugger took off yelling, “I still owe you guys two books!” (He didn’t return Steinberg’s wallet though.)

The book is structured around two incidents. In the first half, a woman enrolls in Steinberg’s creative writing class to be able to watch the son she abandoned years ago work out in the prison yard. The second half of the book tells the story of an inmate, a former drug dealer, who decides to turn his life around and become a cooking show host (the planned title was “Thug Sizzle”). Neither story ends particularly happily and despite a healthy dose of humor, the book is sad.

“It’s a very Jewish mode of writing,” Steinberg said. “It’s how I think. I was raised in a world where these two things are side by side.

The book, he says, is based around mothers and sons.

“There’s a strong family aspect to prison.” He said. “It’s very easy to see people in prison abstracted from things in the world, but they’re still part of their families and you realize that when you spend time in there. “

Asked about his own Jewish mother dealt with a son in prison, Steinberg said she “has given up on getting upset every time I come up with an idea.”

By the end of his second year, Steinbeg said his nerves were frayed.

“I was starting to know people who were leaving and getting killed,” he explained.

Besides the nice Jewish girl he was dating was moving to Philadelphia for medical school. And to keep his mother happy, he followed his girlfriend and left Boston and its inmates behind.

From The Jewish Press

The original article may be found here.

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