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.