Letter from Corvallis: Seder in the House of Bondage

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Letter from Corvallis: Seder in the House of Bondage

Michael Peck


Illustration by Robert Meganck.
The metal detector at the outer gate of the Oregon State Correctional Institution did not perturb me. Nor did the fact that I had to surrender my driver’s license for the duration of the visit at the medium-security prison. Such things seemed normal in post-9/11 America.

But when the guard warned us that, by entering the prison, we agreed to accept the risk of being killed or taken hostage, I began to realize why this night was different than other nights.

It was the fifth night of Passover, and 13 of us had driven 40 miles from Beit Am Jewish Community Center in Corvallis, Oregon. We were there to conduct a Seder for the prisoners, as Beit Am had been doing for the past 25 years. Some of us were regulars who came twice a month to hold Shabbat services for the inmates. A few were college students, there to perform a mitzva.

And then there was me, a first-timer whose own motives were as mixed as the biblical multitude that fled Pharaoh. My wife is observant, but I am not, and Seders had always seemed nothing more than long periods of boredom punctuated by a short period of eating. Yet I was curious. What would it be like to experience Passover behind bars?

Despite the ominous warning at the gate, prison was not as I expected. We passed through a courtyard, an inner gate and then into the main building. But instead of the grim and gray corridors seen in prison movies, the light-colored walls and tiled floors reminded me more of my old New Jersey junior high school—if my school had had guard stations with tinted bulletproof glass.

Guards escorted us to the staff dining room and kitchen that the authorities had graciously allowed the inmates to use to cook and serve the meal. I had assumed we would be under the constant gaze of vigilant wardens, but our escort left us in the hands of a cheerful man who handed us name tags. I blinked twice at his blue denim shirt before I realized that he was an inmate.

This was the first of many surprises that night. And why not? Passover is a celebration of miracles, which are divine surprises. There was nothing surprising about the dining room—it was just another institutional cafeteria with long tables and plastic chairs. But the preparations were extraordinary: Where I had expected shabbiness, every setting was neatly placed. The napkin-covered matzas were on white paper plates and the cutlery—including knives—were plastic, but meticulously arranged.

Every setting had a beautiful paper place mat with a color photo of a Seder table, a diagram of a Seder place setting and a long menu of the foods that would be served. In the free world, this might have been merely an artsy touch; but in this place—where the nearest print shop or art supply store might as well have been on Neptune—it was almost a miracle.

About 20 inmates sat across the dining room tables from us. Others were in the kitchen preparing the meal. The experienced volunteers greeted the prisoners like old friends. But I was more reserved, even watchful. How many personal details dare I reveal to someone who might be a thief or a killer? Then I wondered about what to say at this meal commemorating a festival of freedom that wouldn’t come across as trite, condescending or insensitive.

Joy and fear, companionship and suspicion, mingled like the food on the Seder plate. The inmates may have been the ones behind bars, but they were not the only ones in fetters.

I found myself sitting across from an inmate I’ll call Steven—a short, husky, dark-haired man who spoke as amiably as if we were conversing in a coffee shop. I made the same table talk I would with any host: “What an incredible meal,” I said, gesturing around the dining room, where some inmates and guests talked while others stared at their plates. Steven beamed and replied that the prisoners saved up all year to pay for the kosher meal (I later discovered that Beit Am dipped into its own limited funds to cover shortfalls).

We chatted about the weather and about the prison’s garden where the inmates could grow food. We didn’t discuss why Steven was behind bars—he didn’t volunteer it and I did not ask.

But it wasn’t until Steven mentioned that he thought one of his grandfathers was Jewish that I realized that most of the inmates at the Seder were not. Indeed, the prime organizer of the Seder was African-American. In any other place, the thought of non-Jews conducting a Seder might have felt inappropriate. But here, on this festival of emancipation from slavery—Jewish or not—who better to understand bondage than prisoners?

The Beit Am volunteer who led the Seder spoke of how the Hebrews had to change themselves before they could enter the Promised Land. Mercifully, he was brief, as we were tempted by the delectable smells wafting in from the kitchen. What came next was the best Seder feast I have ever had: brisket, stuffed cabbage, matza balls, incredible chicken soup, vegetable soup, latkes (yes, at Passover, and they were good!), asparagus, kugel, Persian haroset and coconut macaroons for dessert. The inmates encouraged us to eat everything. After all, whatever we didn’t finish would be consumed by the guards.

As it says in Dayeinu, this would have been enough. But the evening ended with a raffle, the prizes including an exquisite hat and scarf knitted by the prisoners. I had to pinch myself: We had entered a prison to help the inmates, and we were leaving with door prizes.

When it was time to go—in prison, events end when they are scheduled to end—we offered to help the inmates clean up. They smiled and insisted that we were their guests.

Guests? We could leave and they could not. We were masters of our fate, and they were not. It was then that I really perceived the significance of that night. I had been blessed with a unique opportunity to witness another side of freedom: the freedom to serve others.

I offer no sweeping conclusions about crime or punishment. I do not know what evils these men did, or whether prison has reformed them and if their incarceration is sufficient recompense to their victims.

What I can say is this, no more or less: that on the fifth night of Passover, at an Oregon prison, a group of men stripped of their freedom did their best to offer their guests a Seder meal. It seemed to mean a lot to them. And to us.

Michael Peck is a writer in Corvallis, Oregon.

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