Paperback

Published: Lightning Books (January 2022)

ISBN: 9781785632754

The Prison Minyan

Jonathan Stone

£8.99

Welcome to Otisville, America’s only Jewish prison…where a new celebrity inmate is about to shatter the peace

‘Erudite, trenchant and touching’

Michael Arditti

The scene is Otisville Prison, upstate New York. A crew of fraudsters, tax evaders, trigamists and forgers discuss matters of right and wrong in a Talmudic study and prayer group, or ‘minyan’, led by a rabbi who’s a fellow convict.

As the only prison in the federal system with a kosher deli, Otisville is the penitentiary of choice for white-collar Jewish offenders, many of whom secretly like the place. They’ve learned to game the system, so when the regime is toughened to punish a newly arrived celebrity convict who has upset the 45th president, they find devious ways to fight back.

Shadowy forces up the ante by trying to ‘Epstein’ – ie assassinate – the newcomer, and visiting poetry professor Deborah Liston ends up in dire peril when she sees too much. She has helped the minyan look into their souls. Will they now step up to save her?

Jonathan Stone brings the sensibility of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to the post-truth era in a sharply comic novel that is also wise, profound and deeply moral.

OUT JANUARY 2022. AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW

Extracts

Yisgadahl, v’yisgadash, sh’mei raba…

That’s his cue.

B’alma di-v’ra chirutei…

The Mourner’s Kaddish. His signal to alert the other guards that the morning service is coming to an end. The prisoners will be shifting into the yard. A few hanging back to chat with the rabbi.

Ba’agala uvizman kariv, y’im’ru, amen.

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Extracts

Yisgadahl, v’yisgadash, sh’mei raba…

That’s his cue.

B’alma di-v’ra chirutei…

The Mourner’s Kaddish. His signal to alert the other guards that the morning service is coming to an end. The prisoners will be shifting into the yard. A few hanging back to chat with the rabbi.

Ba’agala uvizman kariv, y’im’ru, amen.

This morning, fifteen of them, chanting it together. (A minyan – at least ten males – is required for worship, according to Jewish religious law. But no more than twenty at a time, according to State of New York policy and Federal Bureau of Prisons guidelines.)

Yisbarach v’yishtabach, v’yispa’ar v’yisromam…

At this point he can just about chant their prayer along with them. He’s had the morning shift six years now.

‘Big Willie, you’re like an honorary Jew!’ Simon Nadler calls out to him with a big toothy smile. (Bank fraud, five years. Completely fictitious loan applications, fourteen million in loan approvals. The investigation turned up phoney applications all the way back to his Wharton School admission.) ‘Join us anytime. You probably know the service as well as the rabbi at this point, eh Rebbe?!’

The rabbi smiles gently. (Rabbi Morton Meyerson. Five years. Embezzled 3.5 million from his New Jersey congregation. He’s the minyan’s spiritual leader. Their guide in worship and discussion.)

The fifteen of them are huddled together in their circle of metal chairs. Big Willie stands by the door all alone.

Their wild grey beards. Their round bellies. (Otisville Correctional, Otisville New York, is the only prison in the federal system with a kosher deli, and these guys take full advantage – pastrami, corned beef, tongue, gefilte fish, blintzes, rugelach.) In their loose-fitting light-green prison uniforms, they look more like a meeting of doctors and hospital staff than of inmates. Big Willie would never say it out loud – he knows how it would make him sound, and he knows it probably says more about him than about them, but he can’t help thinking it: Prison is making them all look more Jewish. Sound more Jewish. More like one another. Their intonations going up at the end of their sentences, everything a mild question, like nothing is definite. Maybe yes, maybe no. Like they still don’t believe in the definiteness of their verdicts. Most of them have this constant look of amusement. Or contentment. Cheshire-cat grins like they got away with something. Like they’re sharing in some mild, continual little joke. Like they’re a bunch of mischievous kids at some fancy Jewish day school or sleepaway camp.

Other prisoners, when they get here, commit themselves to weightlifting, exercise, working out, getting in the best shape of their lives. Not these guys.

V’yisnaseh, v’yis’hadar v’yis’aleh v’yis’halal sh’mei…

Big Willie watches them all praying, muttering, swaying forward and backward and side-to-side in their metal folding chairs. Trying to impress who? The rabbi? Each other? God?

And when they’re not praying, they’re laughing. Telling dirty jokes. Tilting back in their metal chairs and philosophizing. He has to sit here and listen to it. He tries to tune it out. He tries to be invisible.

He’s been a guard here at Otisville twenty years. Married, two kids. Steady paycheck; raises are built in unless you have a violation. Even in a government shutdown, prisons need guards. They get by on his pay – barely. They shuffle their credit cards. The bank called their home loan last year on a couple of late payments, but he worked it out with them. Both his kids are at SUNY. He keeps to himself. And keeps an eye on this morning’s minyan, in their circle of folding chairs, going left to right:

Matt Sorcher (Four years. Founded a chain of tax return centers in strip malls on Long Island; discovered a way to funnel a portion of his clients’ electronic refunds to his own bank account.)

Abe Rosen (Eighteen months. Art dealer; forgery of old master paintings. Had archival photos of European nobles and Nazi officers holding the art. But the paintings were counterfeit, the photos were staged, the nobles and the Nazis were hired actors.)

Saul Solomon (Eight years. Solomon Automotive Auctions; hired bidders to inflate sale prices on his Ferrari and Lamborghini collection, declared the inflated value and then ‘suffered’ (staged) a warehouse fire to collect the insurance value. The same Ferraris and Lambos showed up in the auction market years later with new serial numbers.)

Manny Levinson (Bribery, graft. Six years. Congressman from Queens. Jar of candies in his office. Literally a favor bank. When he invited you to take a candy, it signaled he’d do the favor you asked, and when you brought a candy back to his jar, it signaled you were ready to pay him. Someone finally told the authorities that taking candy wasn’t just taking candy.)

The cojones. The balls.

Twenty-six million. Ten million. Eighty million. Fraud numbers so large Big Willie can’t really get his head around them. Standing here watching the minyan one morning, with his cellphone’s calculator, he figured that at his salary – 950 a week, 49,400 a year, call it fifty grand – it would take him sixty years to earn even the lowest amount that anyone here was convicted of stealing. And the higher amounts – say ten million – would take him around two hundred working lifetimes.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu…

Another time, watching them, he added up the total theft and fraud in the room. Two-hundred-and-eighty million.

Give or take. Definitely take. All take.

Rabbi Moshe Samuelson (Tax Evasion. Four years. Owned a chain of funeral homes. Had only one in ten bodies buried according to custom. Shipped the rest to a low-cost industrial oven facility for cremation, allowing him to re-use coffins, shuffle burial plots, save on corpse storage, and skim millions. Violated Jewish and federal and state law all at once. His sixteen children – sixteen! – come to visit him every Wednesday. The younger ones gather around his shoes and knees, as he tells them a Bible story, which they discuss afterward.)

Two rabbis here. Meyerson, who runs the service, is Reform. Has a degree in psychology. Samuelson is ultra- Orthodox. Looks down on Meyerson as not really a Jew at all. Two rabbis. Which originally stunned Big Willie almost as much as the 280-million fraud figure, but now doesn’t surprise him at all.

Dr Phil Steinerman (Seven years. Chain of blood testing labs across Miami Dade County that weren’t testing much blood. Another doctor eventually noticed how dozens of his patients were receiving precisely the same blood test results.)

Marty Adler (Nine years. President and COO of three successful family businesses. A parking garage empire. A Honda dealership. A Pepsi bottling plant. Marty managed to marry into all three of the families – no law against that, except if you do it at the same time. Three loving spouses, in three different cities. Finally discovered at a bar-mitzvah whose guest list included two of the wives.)

Gregg Lerner (Ten years. Stockbroker to the stars. Took thirty mil all told from his clients. Moved money out of their accounts, without their knowledge, into exotic investments pretty sure to lose money – air rights in western American cities, treasure diving expeditions – then harvested the tax losses and took the write-offs for himself, something Big Willie doesn’t even pretend to understand. Invested several clients in a new Caribbean island resort development that GPS revealed to be nothing but ocean. That part Big Willie can follow.)

V’al kol-yisrael, y’imru, amen.

Mourner’s Kaddish. And sure, they’re all mourning. But commemorating departed family members like you’re supposed to? Come on. They’re mourning their sentences. Mourning the one dumb little mistake they made to get caught.

quotes

‘Erudite, trenchant and touching, with a premise that the young Philip Roth would have envied’

Michael Arditti

‘Warm, insightful, wise and very funny. Jonathan Stone has created a remarkably appealing community of prison inmates and staff. Quite brilliant’

Abi Silver

‘To the best of my knowledge, The Prison Minyan is the first fiction written about the lives of Jewish criminals that is set in a uniquely Jewish prison. This book has abundant humour and a light touch but it also raises some serious issues, such as the true cost of a life of crime; the meaning of loyalty; antisemitism; morality; and the power of poetry – and words in general – to transform one’s life. An intriguing and enjoyable read’

Nora Gold

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ABOUT

Jonathan Stone

Jonathan Stone recently retired from a 40-year career in advertising.  He was the creative director at a New York advertising agency and did most of his fiction writing on the commuter train between the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan.

Of his nine published novels, several are currently optioned for film: Moving Day is set up as a feature at Lionsgate Entertainment, Days of Night has been optioned by New Republic Pictures, and Parting Shot has been optioned by Marc Platt Productions.  

A graduate of Yale, Jon is married, with a son and daughter.

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