The Prison Librarian

Avi Steinberg tries to make sense of prison life.

Prison library (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Prison library (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
How did a nice Harvard educated Jewish boy like Avi Steinberg land in prison? Through the braided twists of fate that bring people to the most unexpected places in life, Steinberg needed a job when he finished college and he took the first one that he felt qualified for – a job as the Massachusetts state-employed librarian at the South Bay House of Correction, Boston.
Given the set-up, Running the Books could have succumbed to clichés like “life is stranger than fiction.” Fortunately, Steinberg’s wonderful memoir is wholly original and, at times, even quirky when he’s feeling his way through the distinctive hierarchy of prison society.
Steinberg, originally from Cleveland, was brought up in a modern Orthodox Jewish home. He went to day school and spent a summer at a yeshiva in Efrat on the West Bank. It was at the yeshiva that Steinberg first grappled with contradictory impulses of secularism and Jewish mysticism dueling inside of him. He eventually moved away from traditional Judaism yet continued to appreciate the beauty, the holiness and even the danger of the Jewish books he studied.
Steinberg’s time in Israel had a profound impact on him and he connects lessons that he learned outside of the classroom with his experiences as a prison librarian. He was studying on the West Bank the incendiary summer prior to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Steinberg describes his summer spent in Torah study there as “a fanatic’s wonderland.” One of the inmates working in the library drives the point home when he tells Steinberg that the ultra-Orthodox “exhibit some eerie resemblances to a well-organized gang.” In this fanatic’s wonderland, Steinberg finds a hagiography of Baruch Goldstein, a fanatic’s fanatic who killed 29 Arabs and wounded over 150 in the Ibrahimi Mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim in 1994, left behind by a previous student. In casual conversations Rabin is often described as a traitor and a Nazi who has imperiled Israel. I marveled over Steinberg’s provocative descriptions, gradually realizing that Steinberg had experienced his own incarceration in Efrat. That feeling of imprisonment overtakes him as soon as he wanders off the grounds of the yeshiva.
One afternoon Steinberg is out walking with his friend Moshe. The two of them come upon a group of young Arab boys and things turn tense. Moshe defuses the situation by sharing his Bible with the boys. In book swapping with the enemy, these young Jewish and Arab men breach invisible mores and cross taboo borders.
Moshe’s humble, peace-affirming act is very much on Steinberg’s mind in the prison’s library. There, he directs a crew of affable inmates that are locked up for crimes ranging from armed robbery to attempted murder. He consistently tries to reconcile their crimes with their love of literature, their determination to educate themselves in the legalities of their cases. He mulls over the fact that, “Just as in the intolerant atmosphere of the West Bank there were people who said that [book sharing] shouldn’t happen at all. There were a few on staff who thought it was a bad idea. More often, however, I met people outside of the prison who made it clear they didn’t want their tax dollars funding a pretty library for violent criminals.”
But Steinberg sees a greater danger of prisoners relapsing into violence on release by not doing simple, benevolent acts such as providing books and teaching writing. He teaches a creative writing class in which he sympathizes with a woman named Jessica who watches her son play basketball in the prison yard. Mother and son haven’t seen each other for years and the young man has no idea his mother is imprisoned in the same facility. Jessica never speaks in class nor does she write much. She mostly observes her son, “her focal point.” Then, one day Jessica shares a poignant fragment of her writing with Steinberg, “The light is purplish and lush. He dribbles the basketball, fakes out invisible opponents… It’s like a dance. His body is pure joyful movement, unconstrained.” Friday nights in prison are spiritually charged moments for Steinberg. He no longer observes the Jewish Sabbath in the traditional way, yet its dusky advent is still a holy moment for him. He rushes to meet Shabbat, to embrace the small still moment when “the vicious voices and petty falsehoods of the week glide away, and a divine breath drifts over the world, caressing all of creation. If one is tranquil enough, one will feel it. Even in my skepticism I can’t deny it. I still make a habit of being outside to receive it.”
Jewish ritual is very much on Steinberg’s mind as he continuously tries to make sense of prison life. At the same time as the “Sabbath bride” walks down the aisle to greet Shabbat, a visitors’ line of mostly women and children forms outside the prison. He also ponders a line in daily Jewish liturgy that says, “May the informers have no hope.” The line is associated with Messianic deliverance, but Steinberg reflects, “When I said it, I meant it. I knew more about gang loyalty than I had realized. Apparently I’d been raised with it.” Steinberg tells two of his charges that he “grew up Orthodox. Hardcore." The men are fascinated, envisioning Steinberg as a former Hasid – one of the men in black whom they knew from the Federal penitentiaries nervously squawking in prayer or complaining to the warden.
Steinberg shows that books in prison are not only gateways to freedom in the form of a law library – Malcolm X, who was once imprisoned in the same Boston jail, extensively researched his legal case in Steinberg’s library – but also a handy way for prisoners to exchange notes called “kites.” In a prison library, kites are placed in books. As with actual kites that are barely visible in the sky, these notes bind one person to another by an almost invisible string. These forbidden, handwritten messages are often staccato love letters, geopolitical commentary or bald crime plotting.
The books prisoners actually read tended to reflect the wider American population. James Patterson, Dan Brown and James Frey were popular fiction choices. Inmates were also interested in books on real estate and starting small businesses as well as astrology and self-help books. True Crime was another obvious favorite as were The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Prince by Machiavelli.
Steinberg ends the memoir with a split screen effect, a strategy that brings the brilliance of Running the Books into focus. On a Sunday afternoon Steinberg visits the mother of a prisoner named Chudney, who was murdered shortly after his release. He drives around Chudney’s Roxbury, Massachusetts, neighborhood looking for visuals of the places where he hung out, lived and died.
Steinberg describes his venture as “the diameter of a Sunday.” The phrase originates with Yehuda Amichai’s luminous, wrenching poem “Diameter of a Bomb,” a poem that Steinberg teaches in the prison creative writing workshops he runs.
The diameter of the bomb was thirty
centimeters and the diameter of its
effective range – about seven meters.
And in it four dead and eleven wounded.
And around them in a greater circle of
pain and time are scattered two
hospitals and one cemetery.
But the young woman who was buried
where she came from over a hundred
kilometers away enlarges the circle
And the lone man who weeps over her
death in a far corner of a distant
country includes the whole world in the
And I won’t speak at all about the
crying of orphans that reaches to the
seat of God and from there onward,
making the circle without end and
without God.
And so it is with Chudney’s death. The diameter of death and destruction extends as much as 70 miles away, where the man’s son lives in Connecticut. But that is just the beginning. As with any tragedy, the site of the trauma is the point of origin for heartbreak and destruction that spreads over the miles and the years. The consequences of these increasingly stronger reverberations are beautifully gathered and observed in Avi Steinberg’s affecting memoir.