Latest update: December 30th, 2013
David Arenberg has been many things – a tenants’ rights activist, a University of Chicago student, a deliveryman, a coke addict, a slum housing receiver, a swindler, a drug dealer and a prisoner. But now he’s become a Torah aficionado, and is organizing the first Torah study group in a state prison in Arizona. And soon, after nearly 12 years in prison, he’ll be free.
This reporter only recently became aware of an exceptionally compelling article written by Arenberg that was published in several places, including a 2009 report of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In that article, Arenberg describes the peculiar position he found himself in, as the only Jew in a state prison in Arizona, surrounded by white supremacists and various minorities, every single one of whom rejected and despised him because of his religion.
Arenberg’s loathsome status as a Jew placed him at the very bottom of the prison social strata. He was not permitted to eat with any of the various ethnicities – black, American Indian, Mexican, Americans born of Mexican descent (mutual and virulent enmity), each of which dined it its own self-imposed ghetto, and he sure as heck was not allowed to eat with the whites. Why? He explains,
Jews, as we all know, are not white but imposters who don white skin and hide inside it for the purpose of polluting and taking over the white race. The skinheads simply can’t allow me to eat with them: that would make them traitors of the worst kind — race traitors! But my milky skin and pasty complexion, characteristic of the Eastern European Ashkenazi, make it impossible for me to eat with other races who don’t understand the subtleties of my treachery and take me for just another ‘wood [poor rural white]. So the compromise is that I may sit at certain white tables after all the whites have finished eating.
His article is a must-read, both because it provides insight into a prison culture of southwestern America that resembles a nightmarish throwback to nazi-era Jew-hatred, combined with prison brutality, as experienced by someone utterly alone – there were no other Jews, no support system, and no way out.
But as vivid a vision as Arenberg paints, our interest at The Jewish Press was unquenched – how and why did Arenberg finally turn to Judaism while in prison? He was a completely secular Jew; his parents spurned any form of religious observance or rite. They sent David to “socialist summer camp where I was taught that the most important spiritual value is “‘thou shalt never cross a picket line.’”
After a search that took days, and a request process that took longer, The Jewish Press finally scored an interview with Arenberg.
The biggest surprise was that despite the pain and loss and isolation, Arenberg comes across as a self-confident man with a belief in his intellectual abilities and an eagerness to rejoin society as a reoriented human being. He was reluctant to use the word “rehabilitated” because he vehemently rejects the idea that prison is what rehabilitated him, or at least that it did so intentionally, with any successful effort or inclination.
There is no doubt that the David Arenberg who will emerge from prison in approximately five months is a different, a better and a more spiritual human being than the one who went in more than 12 years ago.
But the losses and the pain have been profound.
After his conviction and sentencing, Arenberg’s wife divorced him. He’s not bitter, he said “‘for worse’ does not include long prison sentences.” Both his mother and his father died while he was in prison, and he never had the chance to reconcile with them.
He’s never had children, and now he’s 57.
VICTOR FRANKL PHILOSOPHY
But Arenberg believes that the past 11 years have been the most productive – certainly the most constructive – of his life. That is because he ascribes to the philosophy of the well-known psychiatrist who spent three years in Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl. Arenberg paraphrased Frankl’s philosophy, “you can’t choose the circumstances you find yourself in, but you can choose how you deal with them.”
Of course it is not true that Arenberg was blameless for ending up as the lone Jew in a prison populated by violent, vicious anti-Semitics, but it most definitely is true that he responded to the circumstances with astonishing resilience and a unique capacity to develop valued skills. Those qualities rescued him from any number of cataclysmic mental and physical horrors beyond the ordinary ones faced by people doing serious prison time in a state prison filled with seething hatred and violence.
PATH TO JUDAISM
Arenberg is very upfront about his first step on his path to internalized Judaism. When he first entered the county jail system awaiting trial, he realized that the kosher diet had better food than the non-kosher. The twist was, in order to qualify for the kosher food he had to publicly identify as a Jew. He also was expected to attend the weekly Torah portion classes.
He enjoyed learning with the county jail chaplain, Rabbi Ernie Michel, a true light amidst the darkness. Michel gave Arenberg books, such as Adin Steinsaltz’s The Thirteen Petaled Rose. Arenberg warmly recalls discussing questions like whether Judaism is a religion of the heart or of the head with Rabbi Michel. Thinking about the Zohar and the Talmud provided intellectual meat for this otherwise starving inmate.
He remained in the county jail for a relatively long time – three and a half years. During that time, Arenberg drew on skills developed in his earlier life as a tenants rights advocate, and he began doing legal work for himself and other prisoners. He became a highly visible prisoner within the system, one referred to as “the Jewish prison lawyer.”
The other significance to Arenberg’s extended stay in county jail was that he was there long enough to go through the entire Torah during his weekly parsha sessions. It was the first time he had ever read the Bible; he found it immensely interesting and intellectually stimulating. It was something he wanted to continue.
LIFE IN A SUPER MAX PRISON
After Arenberg’s conviction and sentencing, he was shipped off to a super max facility where he “almost immediately had problems.” One of the many differences between county jail and a super max state prison, is that in the latter are housed prisoners with long prison sentences. They aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. To cope with a shrunken universe, a whole different version of reality arises, one in which each ethnic group has their own turf, their own power, their own social system and strata. The unspoken rules are very strictly enforced.
After Arenberg was run off the yard and beaten severely, prison officials did for Arenberg the only thing they could to protect him. They put him in “protective custody,” which means solitary confinement. Altogether Arenberg spent 15 months of his life in solitary confinement. However, the length of time one can be in solitary is strictly limited. That meant he would be released periodically, whereupon he would be beaten not only for being a Jew, but now also because there is a stigma attached to being in “pc” – protective custody. And then back in he would go.
Arenberg, however, was not only grateful for the respite from physical danger, he also used the enforced silence to write a book (his first novel, he said it needs polishing, maybe he’ll get back to it), and he wrote the article that eventually wound up in the SPLC journal. It was also a finalist in the 2012 Yale Law Journal Prison Writing Contest.
When asked how the other prisoners knew he was Jewish, Arenberg laughed. “If my name was Moishe Himmelfarb, they would not realize I was Jewish, but they recognized any name ending in ‘berg’ as Jewish.”
In a world where Arenberg had little currency, he created his own. He continued with his legal research and work, both for other prisoners and himself. In fact, he recently won a court victory in an action against the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, over failure to provide Arenberg with necessary care for an urgent medical condition. He has worked on civil rights litigation, habeas corpus claims and Arizona criminal law.
The Jewish Press asked Arenberg whether he ever does legal work for the Skinheads. Arenberg had explained that although the Aryan Brotherhood hate Jews, they are not as ideologically driven as are the Skinheads for whom dealing with a Jew is simply beyond the pale. Almost.
“Yes, I do legal work for Skinheads. It’s a matter of self-preservation. But there is absolutely no conversation beyond the legal discussions.”
When Arenberg is finally freed in November, he plans to continue with the expertise he developed in prison, both with respect to the law and prisoners’ rights, but also criminal justice reform – he certainly will have had more first hand experience than most other people involved in the fields.
Having spent all this time in prison, Arenberg knows he is an expert about these matters. Interestingly, his career before his life took a downward spiral had a similar pattern.
After Arenberg graduated from the University of Chicago in 1980, he moved to the lower East Side of New York City. He was living amongst the bohemians and the radicals, in slum dwellings, and quickly became involved in tenant strikes and activism. Part of that life style included doing drugs, it was simply part of the social experience.
Arenberg was good at what he did, but over time, as the ’80s passed into the ’90s, the movement grew smaller and smaller. Arenberg was frustrated and as his successes became fewer, his drug use increased. Eventually there was a split in his movement, someone else took the lead, and Arenberg was adrift. As his work became less fulfilling and his drug habit grew more demanding, short cuts were taken, trusts were betrayed, and money was stolen. Accustomed to being a neighborhood hero, Arenberg found it unbearable to cope with his fall from grace.
Arenberg’s brother tried to help him by setting him up to help out in his business, and Arenberg’s flame was briefly rekindled. He was called on to help out in the labor movement in the southwest, but the geography and the politics of the region felt wrong. Eventually Arenberg began using the skills he had honed to help those in poverty, to engage in increasingly sophisticated financial fraud. What had been good became all bad.
And then it all crashed.
A NEW BEGINNING
In late May, 2013, Arenberg is looking forward to another new beginning. Once he leaves Kingman Prison in November he will be going to a halfway house in Scottsdale, Arizona. He hopes there is a Jewish community there in which he can become involved. Right now he is reading the Jewish Study Bible, put out by the Jewish Publishing Society.
Because he is nearing the end of his prison term, Arenberg is currently in a minimum security prison, where he says there is a small group of intellectuals, with whom he is creating a lecture series. Arenberg intends to have his sessions focus on the Torah. He wants to remain connected to Judaism, but feels most comfortable with the mystical and the historical aspects of the religion. He loves the multi-layered meanings and the deep discoveries rooted in the texts.
David Arenberg is on the cusp of a renewed life. Given all he has lost, his relatively new-found connection to Judaism is a gift he gave himself, one that should help sustain him going forward.
Research conducted for this story revealed what a true kiddush haShem Rabbi Michel was. His story is also worth reading. See it here.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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