Going to prison on Chanukah

The last night of Chanukah; Menorah with all 8...

The last night of Chanukah; Menorah with all 8 candles burning. I used a combination of a ceiling facing strobe and a LED flashlight to create the shadow on the wall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a member of a Jewish singing group. Today, I went to prison with them. No, we didn’t do anything wrong.  We were entertaining the Jewish prisoners with songs pertaining to Chanukah. One of the women in our  group,  is a volunteer with different organizations that help the prisoners once they get out of prison. A few years ago, we started going to the prison on Chanukah. This is my third time going with the group.

Going to a prison is a sobering experience. First of all,  you have to put all your possessions in a locker, or in the locked trunk of your car. ( No cell phones are allowed in the prison.) Then you have to wait in line, and take the stuff out of your coat pockets, and put it in little baskets, similar to going to the airport.  In the middle of all her checking us in, the prison admissions lady had  to unlock the bathroom, so several of us could use it.

I’m sure we don’t look very threatening. Most of us are a little older, and we look it. Plus, we were all carrying our little black music folders. All this checking in, reminded me  that I wasn’t  at  a happy place.  After all, people residing in prisons aren’t there because they were acting like model citizens.

I couldn’t help wondering what they did: were they murderers, terrorizers, thieves, drug addicts, social misfits, or just desperate people who got into trouble. It wouldn’t take all that much to drive somebody the wrong way. ( Not to mention all the mentally unstable people who don’t have a place to go except the streets or the prisons. )

After we were checked in, we all started down the hall in a group. Going down the hallway, I couldn’t help noticing that there was  a lot of unlocking and locking going on. The clanging was a little intimidating.  The bars were painted white. It didn’t whitewash the fact that the place was really a series of cages.  I thought,  what would it be like to be locked in all the time?

We passed a big room where a lot of men were sitting
together listening to a speaker. A sign said, “visitors room,” but nobody looked like they’ were visiting. Nobody looked like they are reuniting or particularly happy. I’m guessing it must be hard for them to all live together with no women around.  There was  the smell of perspiration lingering in the hallway.

We finally got to our destination, and the Jewish prisoners were waiting for us. There wasn’t a lot of them, about 15.  Not only were they waiting for us, but they cooked a feast for us to eat after our little  concert: potato pancakes, applesauce, herring, salmon pate, and luscious desserts. All of the men were  polite, and they looked like typical nice guys. Not only were they nice, but they sure can cook. I wasn’t expecting such a big spread It’s all kosher too. (I don’t keep kosher, but some of the others in the choir do.)  The men said several of them had been cooking all day and I believed it.

We sang our little performance for them, and they were  attentive and seemed to enjoy it. (Nothing like feeling appreciated.) I wondered if they  were remembering a time before they got here, when they celebrated Chanukah with their families. Were we making them feel sad or happy? One man looked pensive, as if he was thinking about another time in his life. Others wanted to clap and just enjoy themselves. I guess you have to find joy wherever you can get it.

The co-director had us mingle with the group, and we sang a Chanukah song in different groups. They  seemed to enjoy this activity, and willingly participated.  They wanted to enjoy the holiday as best as they could,  and had some fun.

One man said to me, “Do you remember me from last year?” I felt bad because he seems like he’s such a polite, handsome, young guy. He says “I’m going to be here for a while, so I’ll be here next year too.” How did he turn the wrong way? What did he do?

One man is a native of another country. He came far to find freedom, then ended up with none.

After the performance, we sat and ate the food they prepared. They came around and asked if we had everything we needed.  It reminded me of those restaurants where the manager asks, ” Does everything taste good?” After I was done eating, I went around and talked to some of the inmates.

One man told  me that the years fly by when you have a good roommate. It wasn’t so good for him the first few years because his roommate wasn’t that nice. I don’t know what he did in the first place, but he reminds me of the kid in school that could get teased. (I can almost imagine what his not so nice roommate did to him.) He said  he can see the end of the road coming because he’s going to get out by 2018. To me, four more years seemed an eternity to be locked up. To him, it’s not that far away.

Finally, the time was up for our visit. The men politely thanked us for coming to visit them.   When it’s time to go in that place, it’s time to go. We had to get in our little groups again to go back to the front desk. Back to go through the locking and unlocking routine. I was glad to be getting out of there. It put my life in a different perspective. I know I will really appreciate my freedom in the next few days.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that society needs a place to lock up people who break the law, and harm others. It’s been that way from the beginning of time. It’s a place for people who have done unforgivable things. Some of the acts are so bad, that they deserve to stay there. The good news is that some can come out of a place like that, and change for the better.

Speaking with Alice Hoffman via facebook: Review: “The Dovekeepers”


Social media has its upside. I was able to contact Alice Hoffman, a very prolific writer via Facebook and asked her some questions. Her answers are contained in this book review. She is my favorite author.

Review of “The Dovekeepers
“The Dovekeepers,” is the fictionalized story of what might have happened at Masada located in Southern Israel.  If you’ve ever toured Israel, you’ve probably visited the remains of the fortress. It was originally occupied by King Herod. It’s situated on top of a high rock and surrounded by steep cliffs.  Israeli soldiers take an oath on Masada, “Masada shall not fall again.”

Masada protected Zealot Jews and their families from the Romans in the first century. After the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem, Jews were being taken as slaves or killed.

Unfortunately, the Jews were only safe at Masada for three years. It took the Roman Tenth Legion that long to reach the fortress. What they found inside the compound shocked them. Nine-hundred-sixty Jewish people were dead. They preferred death to becoming enslaved and killed by the Romans. According to historian, Flavius Josephus, two women and five children escaped death.

Alice Hoffman is a prolific writer who has published a total of twenty-one novels, three books of short fiction and eight books for children and young adults. This is the first adult book she’s written about her Jewish heritage. “ I am not religious, but am culturally attached to my heritage,” said Hoffman.

Many other authors such as Tony Morrison, Jodi Picoult, and Wally Lamb are praising “The Dovekeepers.  “For me, “The Dovekeepers” is the most complicated book I’ve ever written and the most emotionally honest,” said Hoffman.

“The Dovekeepers” is fictional, but Hoffman researched it thoroughly. It took her five years to write this novel. Hoffman also studied artifacts from this period. She was inspired after she took a tour of Masada. “I was moved and connected,” said Hoffman.  The book started coming to her when she was looking at the artifacts displayed in the Masada Museum. After she read some history, she had her novel.

Brave and courageous women are the main characters of this book: Revka, a woman who had led an ordinary life as a baker’s wife until her daughter and husband were brutally murdered; Yael, an assassin’s daughter; Aziza, raised as a boy warrior and Shira, a woman from Alexandria who studied potions and magic.

While doing past research, Hoffman discovered that some women during war-time, disguised themselves as men and went into battle. She was fascinated by this idea and that is how the character Aziza developed.

“Sometimes characters simply arrive, other times they don’t work out. They always surprise me,” said Hoffman.  When she finished the book Hoffman realized each of the characters represented a part of her personality.

The four women in this story are the “Dovekeepers.” The dove’s waste is used to fertilize the land so crops can grow. At first, survival is easy. Herod left storerooms of food behind, but as the time goes on, the storerooms become barren, the weather becomes too hot and dry to grow crops and life becomes desperate.

In the meantime, the Jews watched the Romans constructing battering rams and other weapons. They knew it was only a matter of time before they would be conquered.

Interwoven in the plot are love stories, births and deaths. There is plenty of passion too.
The writer manages to take us back in time. “The inside story is about forgiveness,” said Hoffman.

Descriptions of the battles between the Zealots and Romans are vivid. The tragic end of the people of Masada is masterfully told. Hoffman does end the book with some hope.

When asked how it feels to be admired by so many readers, Hoffman said, “ I am lucky enough to have wonderful readers.”

This book is readily available on the web and at bookstores. Among her other books are “At Risk,” and “Practical Magic.” If you enjoy reading a fantastic author, read any book of Alice Hoffman’s. You won’t be disappointed.

Author Alice Hoffman

Author Alice Hoffman


In honor of Yom Hashoa, a story of survival and triumph

Sundown marks the beginning of Yom HaShoah (Ho...

Sundown marks the beginning of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) in Israel as flags are at half-mast. Français : Drapeaux en berne le soir de Yom HaShoah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yom Hashoa is a day where we commemorate Holocaust survivors. It usually occurs around April.

Here the story of a woman, Fran, who went through the Holocaust, but didn’t let it defeat her.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, has a special meaning for a vibrant woman. Her childhood was spent hiding from the Nazis during WWII.

Today, Fran leads a fulfilling life. This busy wife, mother, and grandmother has a busy career in sales.  In addition, she finds time to do volunteer work.

Fran remembers living in France during World War II. She lived with her parents, and sister, Gloria, in a two bedroom apartment. “I remember the apartment. My mother was always amazed at how much I could remember, but they were not good memories,” said Fran.

When Fran was a small child, there was a knock at their door in the middle of the night.  She remembers her father being taken away by French citizens sympathetic to the Nazis. She never saw him again. Many years later, she discovered that he died in Auschwitz, a German Concentration Camp.

At first, the men were the only ones taken away. No one believed that people would arrest and kill women and children too.

Fran’s mother hoped that they could continue living in their home. Several days after her father was taken, they returned to the apartment. “It was padlocked. All our possessions were gone,”  said Fran.

The two sisters, and her mother moved in with a Jewish friend, Berthe, who lived on the other side of Paris with her son, Armand.

Fortunately, there were non-Jewish  people who were willing to risk their lives for them.  The landlady of an apartment building distracted some soldiers when the family was hiding in a closet.  A neighbor pretended the children were his own, so they wouldn’t be taken away by Nazis.

Fran remembers her mother reassuring them. “She never wanted us to be frightened,” said Fran.

Soon, things became so dangerous that Fran’s mother hid in the forest with others. The girls were placed in non-Jewish homes in the French countryside. Fran remembers her mother trying to see the girls at night. Sometimes, she would give the foster families a little money so the girls could have more food to eat. “We sometimes lived on one or two pieces of bread a day,” Fran recalled.

As a result of poor living conditions,  Fran contracted childhood tuberculosis. She stayed in a TB sanitarium run by Catholic nuns. “The nuns were wonderful to me,” Fran said. Consequently, Fran adopted Catholicism into her life.

The war wasn’t officially  over for Fran until the family was reunited, and moved back to their two room apartment.

Fran wanted to attend church, and her mother would say to her, “Go ahead because wherever you go, God will hear you. Pray that your father comes back… Someday you will be a Jew again.”

Unfortunately, her mother became ill, and died. Fran was devastated.

When Fran was eleven and her sister twelve, the girls came to America by boat. “The struggle didn’t end when we landed in America,” said Fran. She was shuttled between relatives and given away for adoption. The hardest obstacle she faced was being separated from her beloved sister.

After many years of struggle, Fran found happiness and stability with her husband and their four children. They have six grandchildren.

Her mother’s prophecy came true—Fran found her way back to Judaism.

There is much more to this story, and Fran tells it when she speaks to schools and organizations about the Holocaust.

The only tangible reminders she has of her early life are some photographs.

Fran still has a close relationship with her sister.  Although Fran’s life has been tumultuous, she is a happy person.

“ Tragedy becomes a part of you, but you can choose to be positive about life,” Fran explained.