I turned down the long alleyway at Cell Block 7, where the prisoners’ exercise yards used to be before the Alfred W Fleisher Memorial Synagogue opened its doors in 1924. Passing the rows of peeling, decomposing cells, many with the eerie skylight that used to be called “the eye of God,” their desolation leeched into you like a bad smell.
Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia’s Fairmount District, opened in 1829 on the principle of instilling penitence in the convict by means of a solitude so strict no communication with other convicts was permitted. Even when they were led out of their cells, the prisoners had to have their heads hooded.
Charles Dickens, who visited Eastern State in 1842, roughly seven decades before its draconian social experiment was abandoned, and a more socialized routine introduced, would write: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
Pushing open the plain wooden door of the synagogue, whose restoration began in April 2008 and finished a year later (Eastern State closed its doors in 1971 and was transformed over time into a historic museum), I found myself standing before the empty Ark, the upraised table where the Torah was read, the wall-hugging benches that were once alive with the conversational and sacral sounds of captive men. I longed for diaries to tell me how the first generations of Jewish convicts dealt with the affliction of unbroken silence.
There were never very many Jewish prisoners at Eastern State. By 1924, there were just 30 out of an inmate population of nearly 1,400. The number spiked at 80 in 1940 as the Great Depression drove handfuls of Philadelphia Jews into organized crime.
One of those Jews was Morris (The Rabbi) Bolber, whose eyes on the intake form were described correctly as “trouty,” and who was sentenced to life in 1942 for heading a murder ring that saw Philadelphia housewives poison their husbands to collect their insurance money. I learned that Bolber was a student of Kabbalah in Russia, and a failed grocer in Philadelphia. He entered organized crime as one enters a thriving business. To keep his head above water, we are told in the book Philadelphia Organized Crime In The 1920s and 1930s by Anne Margaret Anderson and John J. Binder that he had practised faith healing, instructing clients to “hold an egg under one’s arm for nine days for good luck.” At what point, I wondered, was murder seen as the better option?
Bolber joined the prison congregation, and was befriended by one of the synagogue’s most loyal volunteers, Joseph Paull, a butcher, whose devotion to the prisoners, Jews and non-Jews alike, extended to his buying tickets to Atlantic City for paroled inmates so they could lose their “prison pallor” before starting work outside Eastern State’s fearsome walls.
Long before the synagogue opened, as far back as 1845, the Philadelphia Jewish community – worried about the vulnerability of Jews at Eastern State, whose corridors rang with the Christian prayers and the preachings of churchmen, – sent in their clergy and members of the community to keep Jewish prisoners from being picked off by proselytizers.
Watching the synagogue video in the exhibit hall, I was struck by the resemblance of Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, the last rabbi to serve the inmates (he began officiating at Fleisher in the mid-’60s), to the legendary theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He had Rabbi Heschel’s snowy spade beard, as well as his concern for those banished to the margins by society.
“We were the only religious group that never had a guard present during their services. They relied upon our word that we would keep order.”
Corned beef, roast beef, lox, white fish, were brought in for the Jewish prisoners. “Food they don’t serve at Eastern State,” Rabbi Rubenstein noted dryly.
I had wondered about the closet-sized area with the wooden shelf in back of the synagogue. The prisoners were unlikely to need an area to store their hats, coats, valuables. A woman obviously from another faith surmised, “That must have been where the priests heard confession.” The young prison guide set us straight: “It was where food was laid out.”
A steady stream of visitors wandered in and out of the long room, often after visiting the prison’s main attraction in Cell Block 8: Al Capone’s residence for eight months in 1929. I myself was drawn there as if to a point of light. Unlike the nakedness of the other cells, Capone’s is the only one that is furnished: a rug, a lamp, a desk, a plant. The bootlegger, a sign informs us, was able to purchase his share of domestic comforts, to remain a somebody in this colony of nobodies.
Capone’s cell extols the time-honoured American obsessions with celebrity and acquisition. The synagogue honours the Jewish obsession with community.
Touching the Torah table with its sign that says “DO NOT TOUCH”, I recalled the suppressed horror I felt as a boy when my mother told me she used to correspond with a Jewish prisoner somewhere in America. The Jewish culture I was raised in was so resolutely law abiding that the very term “Jewish prisoner” was ungraspable. Her revelation made my mother almost seem exotic. A woman in contact with the most foreign of foreign lands. A land like Eastern State. Only probably not quite as harrowing.
Robert Hirschfield is a New York based writer.