Louis Ferrante was just a Mafia member from New York City who was serving time, until he began a jail-time journey that resulted in his conversion to Judaism after his release in 2003. In “Unlocked: A Journey From Prison to Proust” (HarperCollins), Ferrante chronicles his trip. Although the memoir focuses mainly on his days in the mob, Ferrante depicts how his discovery of reading while in prison led him to the Torah. (He now lives in upstate New York and has a girlfriend who has also converted.) Peter Ephross recently talked with Ferrante, 38, and asked him to explain his embrace of Judaism — and how that embrace has affected his daily life.
Peter Ephross: In your book, you make it sound like it was easy for you to take on a Jewish identity while in prison.
Louis Ferrante: I would say that in the beginning it was difficult for me to just break away from everything that I ever knew. I have a strong sense of loyalty inside me, and I felt like there was a possibility I was betraying my family or my roots. And it took time for me to eventually be confident enough and secure enough that Judaism is the truth.
P.E.: How did other inmates react to your involvement in Judaism?
L.F.: Inside prison, I had problems [at first] when people thought I had made a clean break from the Italians. “Oh, he’s on his own now”; they didn’t know if the Italians threw me out of the clique or I went on my own, but whatever the case is, you’re sort of a renegade and you’re out there on your own. But I always fought for myself anyway….
The Italians ended up respecting me because I still stood up and did my time and didn’t give anyone up, so it didn’t make me less of a man in their eyes.
P.E.: Were you actively raised in the Catholic Church?
L.F.: We went to church for a while when I was a kid, on Sundays. My mother taught me to pray. We used to pray, me and my sister, at night. We weren’t strong with Catholicism, but that was our faith. I went to Catholic school when I was a kid.
P.E.: How did you move to the Torah from reading books?
L.F.: Getting to the Torah was a long process. At first, I read the Gospels. I wanted to explore my own religion first, obviously, so I read the Gospels and I picked up the Quran, and I picked up the Baghadvita and I studied Buddhism…. Now I’m saying to myself, “Wait a second” — ’cause I have a good sense of history now — “the Jews came first. Everybody said, ‘I’m going to change your book, change it a little, rewrite it,’ and then we’re gonna say the Jews are wrong. I mean, c’mon, what’s going on over here?”
P.E.: How would you characterize your Jewish life today? Do you pray every day? Do you keep kosher?
L.F.: I daven, I keep kosher, I keep Shabbos. I try to perform any mitzvah I can. I would say I’m either Modern Orthodox or ultra-Conservative. The only reason I’m not saying complete Orthodox is because my family is all gentiles, so if they cook for me they’ll cook Jewish food, but I eat in their house, out of their plates, out of my sister’s pots and pans. It’s difficult where I’m at now, wherever you are, if you’re traveling, to constantly get kosher food, so I’ll eat in a regular place but I’ll order a piece of fish that’s kosher or pareve. No way will I eat nonkosher food, whether I’m out or in.
PE: Do you attend a synagogue?
LF: I don’t, I don’t. I’m living in the mountains right now, up in the Catskill Mountains. So the nearest community is in Monticello. I’ll make runs down there to pick up my kosher food, but I’m not in walking distance to a synagogue. I intend to [be] eventually. I would love to have a place down in Florida, and maybe I’ll get one near a community down there.
P.E.: Do you think Judaism has helped you stay away from crime?
L.F.: Well, now it’s easy to stay away from crime. But when I made the break from a criminal mind to a different mind, Judaism was the rock, that was the foundation for everything. Everything that I am began there.
P.E.: Both the Mafia and observant Judaism have tight guidelines governing behavior. Do you think this made it easier to make the switch?
L.F.: No. That’s pretty, I guess, safe to assume, what you just said, and it makes sense. It’s logical. But it’s completely the opposite in reality, because I was lost — although I followed some twisted moral laws that we had. We had a set of twisted rules, looking back at them, but they were rules. The Mafia’s governed by rules: We couldn’t do this, we couldn’t do that, but I was lost….
You know what, what you said, I never thought of it, and from a different point of view, if I thought about it long enough I might have a different opinion on it in a couple of weeks. We did have a set of laws; they were just twisted.
P.E.: You say in your book that reading about the Holocaust helped you to endure jail. Of course, the difference is that you had been found guilty of criminal behavior while European Jews killed during the Holocaust were innocent.
L.F.: Absolutely. What kind of complaint could I have, knowing I deserved whatever came to me when you think about all these poor people? They were just scooped up in the middle of the night.
PE: Does it bother you that more Jews aren’t religious?
LF: Yeah, I think it bothers me. I may not have a right to say it bothers me, but I’m disturbed.
PE: A final question, on the lighter side. What’s your favorite Jewish food?
LF: I love everything. My girlfriend makes kosher shepherd’s pie, which is delicious. I know what you’re looking for, like matzo ball soup. When I lived in Massapequa, [N.Y.], I was able to travel to Ben’s [a New York-area deli chain]. There’s probably nothing I haven’t eaten on that menu.
This story "A Wiseguy’s Jewish Journey" was written by Peter Ephross.