The Jan. 22, 2021, issue of The New York Times includes an article by Corey Kilgannon titled, “Michael Cohen’s Prison of Choice: Well-known to Jewish Offenders.”
The article identifies the minimum-security federal prison in Otisville, New York, 75 miles northwest of New York City, as the place where Cohen will serve his time. Since the prison population contains a large proportion of Jewish white-collar criminals, it actually offers Kosher meals, religious classes and weekly Shabbat services.
As Kilgannon puts it, “Otisville’s camp has long been the lockup of choice among Jewish white-collar offenders.”
In Jonathan Stone’s new novel, “The Prison Minyan,” Otisville has been turned into the setting for complex and increasingly engrossing fiction; it is a place where an assortment of New York area Jewish felons gather for the daily minyan and free-wheeling follow-up discussions led by a Reform rabbi, “Morton Meyerson: fraud, five years; embezzled $3.5 million from Agudeth Sholom, Parsippany, New Jersey.”
The all-prisoner minyan mostly consists of a clever and talkative crew, brought together by being caught, tried and convicted for a wide variety of non-violent acts of fraud. The men speak in a seemingly forthright manner, but are often evasive, shrewd, double-talking. They seem ambivalent about the crimes they have committed, and – at least in the beginning – are for the most part sorry that they were stupid enough to have been caught.
To complicate matters, a new prisoner, whom they name “The Fisk,” (a fictionalized version of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer) joins the group – and suddenly unidentified outside forces, directed by an unnamed sitting president, attempt to make Otisville ever more unpleasant both for The Fisk and his fellow prisoners.
In its opening chapters, the book is laugh-out-loud funny. For example, a six-page chapter, titled “The Rule of Three,” focuses on “Marty Adler: matrimonial fraud, nine years; married to three women simultaneously; CEO of three family businesses concurrently.” Here we are dealing not with a bigamist, but with a trigamist!
Adler marries each of his three wives during the course of a single year: one in the spring, the second in mid-summer, and in a third wedding in the fall. As Adler explains, juggling the comings and goings of three families that all think that he is the man of their house requires “some skillful scheduling.”
The all-knowing author comments drolly: “The odd thing is, the marriages were good – all three. He was happy, his families were happy.
“Really, the only problem with it was the lies. Mountains of lies …. And, of course, the fact that it was illegal.”
But it does not take long for the narrative to darken considerably. An upcoming chapter, with the ominous title “Auschwitz,” considers a father, Herman Nadler, prisoner at Auschwitz, and his son, prisoner at Otisville: “Simon Adler: bank fraud, five years. Fictitious loan applications, $14 million in approved loans.”
Though Simon has been in Otisville for 18 months and has 3½ years yet to serve, his father has not visited him until this very day. Again, the author’s voice: “They are both too embarrassed to see the other under these circumstances. His father survived Auschwitz, made his way to America, struggled and saved and worked and slaved, only to have his son end up in an American jail.
“As if to say, what was the point of surviving?”
When a new warden, James Jack Armstrong, arrives at Otisville, things go from bad to worse. Armstrong is a white nationalist and a rabid antisemite. One morning, he stands in front of the prisoners and barks: “Shaved heads; no facial hair; no exceptions; period.”
In addition, Warden Armstrong orders all the prisoners to change into identical old gray uniforms.
“Within an hour, they all looked like one another ….
“The identical thought spreads through the dayroom.
“We look like concentration camp inmates.
As is true of many good books, “The Prison Minyan” leaves us with more questions than answers: Can prisoners do teshuvah, truly repent, while being incarcerated? Will they be changed people after serving their time, or are they sentenced to be who they really are and return to a life of crime?
We cannot know, because as the story draws to a close, all of the prison minyan are still in jail.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.