Disparate Worlds

Learning in Yeshiva and Harvard and Jail

By Shoshana Olidort

Published November 03, 2010, issue of November 12, 2010.

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian
Avi Steinberg
Nan A. Talese. 24.95

Avi Steinberg’s memoir of his time as a prison librarian is a catalog of juxtapositions. The product of a suburban modern Orthodox community and a graduate of Harvard, Steinberg seems an unlikely candidate for a rough Boston prison, where his primary companions are convicted criminals, among them addicts, pimps and rapists. Indeed, when he tells a former teacher, a rabbi, about the job, the rabbi is incredulous: Why would a good Jewish boy waste his time working in a prison? Yet it is precisely out of this strange meeting of worlds that Steinberg emerges as a thoughtful and gifted debut author.

In “Running the Books,” Steinberg uses his background as a mirror of sorts for exploring the realities of prison life and the inmates he comes across. The tragic hero of this book is Jessica, a hopelessly drug-addicted woman who has been in and out of prisons for much of her life. Jessica is extremely withdrawn, and it is only through another inmate that Steinberg learns what keeps her gazing out the window during his creative writing class: the chance to observe her grown son, whom she abandoned when he was just a toddler and who has turned up behind bars in the same prison as his mother — neither having seen the other since the initial abandonment more than 15 years prior. Slowly, gradually, Steinberg is able to tease out bits and pieces of her history from the tight-lipped Jessica, whose “tortured solitude” and “abyss of silence” remind the librarian of his own distant and difficult grandmother, Faye.

A Holocaust survivor, Faye once criticized her daughter for hugging her toddler. When an 8-year-old Steinberg asked for coins from his grandmother’s collection, she refused, instead telling him: “You can dance on my grave with them!” Her response filled the boy with horror. To him, she was “a hideous demon who had emerged from the flames of the shtetl to curse our happy safe lives in the New World.” Asked about her experiences before and during the war, Faye always refused to talk. When she did relent and begin to tell a story, she would inevitably cut herself short, saying, “But what does it matter? Hitler killed all of them!”

Through his conversations with Jessica — a woman guilty of abandoning an innocent child and sentencing him, in effect, to a life much like her own — Steinberg gains insight into the impenetrable and insufferable Faye, whose maliciousness had made him blind to the fact that she was, like Jessica, “an intensely lonely person. A prisoner.”

Interwoven in this book are other fragments of the author’s past as a fervent yeshiva student, whose college career had panned out precisely as the rabbis had warned it would — with Steinberg avowedly secular and “deep in indirection.” Steinberg’s writing is sharp and witty throughout, but he is at his most eloquent when describing the world of his youth and his Orthodox upbringing. At an Orthodox friend’s wedding he observes the “trappings of the Western wedding ceremony, with its stifling pageantry, fall by the wayside” as the truth of the Jewish wedding emerges: It is a “hoedown, sweaty and tribal,” complete with juggling physicians, break-dancing CEOs and hugging strangers.

Often, Steinberg compares the safe and secure world of his family and community — albeit one to which he, as a self-described “heretic,” no longer belongs — with that of the prisoners. Thus, on a Friday night in winter he observes the scene outside the prison doors, as children wait on long lines “in the cold to visit a mother or father, or both, in a steel and concrete prison.” This, while in other parts of the same city, notes Steinberg, children from his home community “sit in marble synagogues” for melodious services that are “followed by a warm Shabbat dinner at home.”

Steinberg’s background also informs his real-time interactions with inmates and prison staff. In one scene, the author, still new on the job, recognizes that with his naïve, Jew-boy looks he is at a terrible disadvantage. To gain respect he decides he must do things “the Harvard way,” which is to say he must “spearhead an initiative.” What he devises is a project aimed at getting inmates to donate money from their personal funds to Katrina relief. Not surprisingly, his attempts serve to highlight, rather than disguise, his naïvete, and news of the project is met with barely disguised cynicism from the prison staff.

Steinberg blurs the lines between prison guards and inmates.

Asked by one caseworker what is in it for the inmates, Steinberg responds “a sense of agency.” This provokes a fit of laughter.

Alas, things turn disastrous when one of Steinberg’s chief assistants on the project is removed from library duty — and, consequently, from participating in the project — as a penalty for having assumed an overly authoritative tone in publicizing the initiative. But things really come to a head when an inmate warns Steinberg against transferring the donated funds from the prisoners’ accounts. The money, it turns out, is “tainted by corruption,” as is so much else in prison, where, the inmate explains, “you can’t trust nobody.”

An affable, friendly guy, Steinberg reaches out to the inmates, engaging them in conversation and sometimes acting as a confidant. In his exchanges with them, Steinberg is empathetic and non-judgmental, and unlike most other staff members, he chooses not to maintain a critical distance between himself and the prisoners. This has its advantages: Steinberg earns the trust of many of the inmates, which is quite a feat in the strict hierarchy of the prison, where prisoners are generally deeply suspicious and distrustful of everyone, especially staff. But sometimes Steinberg veers dangerously close to blurring the line that separates criminals from those who work in the prison.

When he runs into Ant, an ex-prisoner, during off-hours at a Dunkin Donuts one evening, the pimp greets the librarian with an “earnest thug hug.” When Steinberg asks Ant “What’s up, Pimpin?” the latter replies: “Just keeping my P poppin, y’know whadImean?” Steinberg knows exactly what Ant means. “Poppin never stopping,” he says. It’s the inmate jargon that Steinberg’s picked up in casual banter with the prisoners. Seemingly harmless, it engenders friendship and trust between the librarian and the inmates. But when Ant’s “bitch” — also a former prisoner — turns up, Steinberg confronts the recognition that using these innocuous turns of phrase “identified me with the wrong side… with the abuse and exploitation of a young, drug-addicted woman.”

Even more disturbing is the case of C.C. Too Sweet, a pimp who considers his profession the “great male art form” and who spends much of his time in prison working on his book, “Memoirs of a Pimp.” Steinberg takes a liking to C.C., who is unusually driven for a prisoner, and offers to help with his manuscript. But after the encounter with Ant, he decides to do some research on C.C. The revelations — kidnapping, rape and the attempt to sell young women, including a minor, for sex — are devastating to Steinberg, who backs away from C.C. without offering any explanation.

While not all the prisoners are unrepentant criminals, few are able to break out of the vicious cycles of violence and crime that bring them back to prison again and again. Some are less fortunate and turn up dead — by suicide, murder or drug overdose — just weeks after being set free.

When Steinberg eventually reaches out in reconciliation toward C.C. and offers to write the prologue to his book, he is motivated only in part by the hope that the story might be redeemed in the telling. More important for Steinberg is the recognition that “it wasn’t my job to judge his past.” C.C. is overjoyed when he reads the prologue, and promises to show it to his mother. This prisoner, with his long history of abuses and crimes perpetrated by and against him, notes Steinberg, is still just “a slightly balding guy wanting the approval of his momma.”

Through his juxtaposition of the insular world of his Orthodox family and friends against the similarly insular prison, Steinberg effectively demonstrates the parallels that exist between such seemingly disparate universes. What this poignant memoir ultimately brings home is, in many ways, obvious — that humans are, all of us, exceptionally fragile and emotionally complex beings.

Shoshana Olidort, a frequent contributor to the Forward, is a freelance writer and editor based in New York.



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