Interview'The consequences of not knowing are sometimes lethal'

A first ‘real’ Hanukkah helped an inmate find light during a decade behind bars

In his memoir ‘Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison,’ Daniel Genis tells how voracious reading and finding his Jewish identity saved his life in more ways than one

Reporter at The Times of Israel

'Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison,' by Daniel Genis, pictured at right in weightlifting gear, in an undated photo taken during his prison time. (Courtesy)
'Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison,' by Daniel Genis, pictured at right in weightlifting gear, in an undated photo taken during his prison time. (Courtesy)

As an inmate in the New York State prison system, Hanukkah was a surreal experience for Daniel Genis.

Candles were forbidden at most of the facilities he was incarcerated in over more than a decade because prison authorities feared inmates might use wax to forge keys. Evening services were provided through a Chabad-aided program that utilized inmate beadles. At New York’s Green Haven Correctional Facility, an officiant was a 350-pound Sabbath-observant inmate convicted of two murders, including his own 23-year-old pregnant wife.

And yet, Genis told The Times of Israel, “it was Hanukkah, of all the holidays we conducted in prison,” that “made me first truly feel like a Jew.”

“It was a much more Orthodox environment than I’d ever been in before,” said Genis, who grew up in a secular, interfaith Russian-immigrant family in New York that displayed a hanukiya, or Hanukkah menorah, alongside a Christmas tree.

“It was conducted quite seriously,” he said. “I learned the miracle of it, the miracle of the oil lasting. I was in that prison, dreaming of that miracle. In prison, we never had enough of anything. There was oppression. Although in prison, you put yourself there: I committed a crime.”

Today, Genis shares his life story with young audiences as a cautionary tale. He grew up in an affluent, intellectual household, the son of the Russian author Alexander Genis. Yet in 2003, several years after graduating from NYU, the younger Genis committed a series of robberies to feed a drug addiction.

His polite demeanor at knifepoint earned him a memorable nickname — the Apologetic Bandit — but he was arrested and sentenced.

I read all the prison literature I could get my hands on to learn everything I could… so I could leave without a scar

To cope with entry into a terrifying, unknown world, the first-time inmate decided to treat his incarceration as an anthropological research project. That included reading a staggering amount of literature related to the subject, even if tangentially, from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” to the Holocaust narratives of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. It also meant interacting with the often-intimidating people who made up the prison system, especially the inmates, and experiencing prison life from cooking to sports.

Eight years after his release, Genis has published a book about his experiences, “Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison.”

“Everyone else was quite used to this world,” Genis told The Times of Israel. “They knew its rules. Of course, if you do make one mistake, it’s a hard thing to pay up. The consequences of not knowing are sometimes lethal…

“I read all the prison literature I could get my hands on to learn everything I could… so I could leave without a scar,” Genis said. “Not everyone left this way. Dreadful things happen inside. You have to realize, being Jewish, being educated, I frankly stood out.”

Acts of terrifying violence

‘Sentence’ author Daniel Genis. (Courtesy)

Genis first went to New York City’s fearsome Rikers Island, where he was incarcerated for nine months before serving the remainder of his sentence at prisons upstate. Early on, he witnessed terrifying violence. A fellow inexperienced inmate was slugged in the mouth by a police officer for disobeying an unwritten protocol, leaving teeth and blood on the floor.

The book tackles such topics as homophobia, solitary confinement and drug abuse, and includes interactions with celebrity inmates such as Amityville mass murderer Ronald DeFeo Jr. Another such inmate Genis references is the rapper Shyne, who was incarcerated for a nightclub shooting and went on to convert to Orthodox Judaism and become a Belizean politician. While in prison, Shyne got a job clerking for the same rabbi Genis clerked for, albeit in a different location.

Prison frayed Genis’s relationship with his parents, although they picked him up on the day of his release. He got through it all with the love and help of his wife, Petra. He wrote her a letter from prison each day, and she kept them in a file cabinet, arranged by date.

Genis used his own filing system in prison. He noted and numbered each book title he read on loose-leaf paper to ensure no repeats. Even now, he remembers that No. 767 was “War and Peace,” which he finished one winter, opting to conclude Tolstoy’s epic in the exercise yard instead of inside.

His reading list included “psychological stories, emotional stories, philosophical, even theological concepts I wrestled with,” he said.

There were memoirs from individuals jailed in deadly conditions for their identity – Levi and Wiesel in the Shoah, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the gulag. Another memoir was the Victorian-era autobiography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the British explorer, soldier, polylinguist and spy who became the first non-Muslim to covertly enter Mecca.

“I felt I myself was traversing a similar path,” Genis said, “entering a world of trouble and danger, very different from the one I knew — unknown, in a way. I did identify with Richard Burton.”

I was entering a world of trouble and danger, very different from the one I knew

A novel that impressed him for its treatment of prison life was Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full.” Although its main setting is Atlanta, a portion takes place in California, where a down-on-his-luck Golden Stater, Conrad Hensley, is sent to prison for the first time. One particularly disturbing scene involves a gang rape.

Of the terror of prison rape, Genis said, “It is true, it is real. Anybody who goes in a minority, like I was — white and educated — it is something you have to contend with.” He added, “Your option might be having to pick up a knife… Thank God I was never put in that position.”

Antisemitism from all sides

He did experience antisemitism in prison, from both white supremacists and Black Muslims.

‘Sentence’ author Ganiel Genis, left, in a New York State prison with fellow inmates, one of whom holds a photo of Chabad chief rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on the Shavuot holiday, May 2009. (Courtesy)

“I would negotiate for the price of something,” Genis recalled, “and someone would ask me, ‘Did he Jew you down?’ I said, ‘Did he Jew me down? I’m the rabbi’s clerk, I’m a Jew — maybe you should not be saying that.’ They would say, ‘I know, but did he Jew you down?’

“They didn’t have the sense that it could be wrong and rude to say such a thing,” he said. “It’s definitely a challenge for some of the career criminals, Jews, who go back and forth [to prison] their whole lives… They get into lots of fights to defend themselves.”

Genis initially became friends with a fellow Russian Jew — Dmitry, nicknamed “Dima” — who displayed his faith with a Star of David tattoo on his arm. Dima spent his time mastering games from Scrabble to cribbage, while looking for intimacy through personal ads in Russian-language newspapers. Dima advised Genis to stay away from friendly, nonviolent inmates because they were likely sex offenders. Then Genis subsequently discovered that Dima was a sex offender.

“It was hard to process when I found out,” Genis said.

I would negotiate for the price of something, and someone would ask me, ‘Did he Jew you down?’

Another hard-to-process experience resulted when he turned to the popular prison pastime of weightlifting. He stayed with it for four years before getting injured, and following his release, he penned articles about the subject for publications such as Deadspin. Weightlifters require a spotter, or a helper to ensure they have proper form. His spotter was a white supremacist who sported a stomach tattoo of an axman beheading a rabbi.

‘Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison’ by Daniel Genis. (Courtesy)

“It was the worst tattoo I’d ever seen in my life,” Genis said. “I had to look at the tattoo constantly. I kept asking him, ‘Why do you hate Jews so much?’ He was my friend, he talked to me all the time, insisted on exercising with me.”

Finally, Genis received an answer: “‘Because Jews, you know, they’re so fucking stupid.’ That was when I realized this guy had never met a Jew.”

The spotter presumed that the blue-eyed Genis was not actually a Jew, just another pretender out for kosher food — a sizeable number of non-Jewish inmates self-identify as the chosen people to get the ostensibly better kosher fare.

To Genis, this phenomenon might explain why statistically, Jews comprised seven percent of the New York State prison population as of nine years ago. He muses that in America, inmates pretend to be Jewish, whereas in his parents’ native USSR, identification as such on a passport could ruin an education or career.

As for himself, “at the time of incarceration, I did not even think of myself as a Jew,” Genis said. “Not very much at all… In jail, I really came to understand the benefits of being a Jew, that I was a Jew, and how lucky I was to be a Jew.

“I found my Jewish soul in prison, shall we say. I’m not the only one,” he said.

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