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Yehoshua November: At the Request of the Organization for Jewish Prisoners

Three bearded rabbinical students in a rented car,

trunk filled with menorah kits and grape-juice bottles,

we pulled away from the all-male yeshiva in New Jersey

and headed west, into the heart of Pennsylvania, to celebrate

Chanukah with the Jewish inmates of Allenwood’s many prisons.


In our black hats and coats we entered

the lobby of the medium-security compound

and took our place in the check-in line behind a woman

not dressed at all like the rabbinical-school secretary—

the only other female we had seen in weeks.

What was exposed was exposed, and what wasn’t

was so tightly garbed that no questions remained

as to proportions or angles.

She had come to visit an inmate.

“We can’t let you past the checkpoint dressed like that,”

the crew-cut officer behind the front desk said

to the woman, probably in her thirties, standing, ashamed now,

beside her two small sons. She had

more sensible clothes in her bag, she said.


While she retreated to the bathroom to change,

a Catholic chaplain led us through a courtyard

framed by barbed wire and watchtowers,

across the icy, vacant basketball blacktop,

and into a small multipurpose room,

where Jewish prisoners,

released for that hour from their errands,

were awaiting our arrival.


The priest looking on with a guard

through a two-way mirror,

we poured the grape juice into paper cups

and told the old story of the Jewish flame lasting longer

than nature’s laws could explain.


We told the story of the soul,

which, against its will, descends

into the body’s confinements.

And then we tried to explain

the great Chassidic paradox

as our Rebbe had taught it to us —


how, despite its loftiness, the soul was created

only to sanctify the body,

to lift up the lowest realm.

The priest re-entered the room.

“About time to wrap it up, rabbis.”

So we set out the tin menorah kits and lit the candles,

and then we were ushered once more across the frozen courtyard

and into a warm van, to be driven to the next facility.


As we pulled out, we could see the woman,

now dressed in a puffy coat and plain winter hat,

packing her two sons into the backseat

of her beat-up sedan.

I imagined her dressing in her bathroom that morning,

applying makeup in the mirror above a sink

spotted with children’s toothpaste,


thinking not at all of the sexual act

but of how to give her husband or boyfriend

something to look forward to.


She must have inhaled deeply

and then squeezed her body into the tight black dress.

Copyright 2016 Yehoshua November from his collection Two Worlds Exist.

3 comments on “Yehoshua November: At the Request of the Organization for Jewish Prisoners

  1. Jerry Reich
    December 22, 2019

    This poem leaves a powerful picture in my mind. It certainly resonates on Chanukah!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. James Hickoy
    December 26, 2016



    I think the poem too risque. Ok for Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Not for a chosid or chassidim.


  3. triciaknoll
    December 24, 2016

    What a moving story. Well-crafted.

    Liked by 1 person

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