The Prison Minyan cover - author Jonathan Stone - everything but kosher porridge

Otisville – a New York state prison for Jews with its own kosher cuisine! What a ridiculous idea.

And yet the setting for thriller-writer Jonathan Stone’s satirical novel turns out to be real. The Jewish prison Otisville exists. And it does kosher.

Against this background, Stone has created a noisy, kvetching, kibitzing crew of fictional convicts, united in their desire to argue and eat rugelach (a particularly delicious spicy Jewish crescent pastry filled with nuts and raisins, but more of that later).

At the centre of the book is the minyan, the minimum of ten adult males (no feminism in traditional Judaism) needed for a Jewish religious service.

Everything except kosher porridge

We are introduced to them through a non-Jew, Big Willie, a guard, who despite being a goy has stood guard over their services so often that he can just about chant in Hebrew with the best of them. The Jews have nicknames for the goys, though not normally themselves, and the joke is that the nicknames are always tongue-in-cheek. Big Willie is decidedly small.

From here, we meet each in turn, each regularly referred to with his own sentence and crime attached, such as Matt Sorcher – four years – embezzled the clients of his tax return centres – and Abe Rosen – eighteen months – forged old masters.

To start with, I wondered if the repetition of the crimes would become, well, repetitive, but in fact the humour grew on me.

The inmates have settled into a more or less comfortable way of life, imprisoned, yes, but they have their routine: they have their kosher delicacies, cooked by Dmitry the chef, their services, and their regular Talmudic discussions of big (and small) issues, headed by the dramatically powerful figure of Rabbi Morton Meyerson (five years, fraud). Everything, indeed, except kosher porridge.

Trouble from high up

Into this barred Eden comes a celebrity arrival – someone who has snitched on the president. The Pisk (aka Mighty Mouth) is clearly, if loosely, based on Michael Cohen, lawyer and fixer for D Trump, sent to Otisville in real life on a three-year sentence for tax evasion, crimes relating to campaign finances and lying to Congress.

But someone high up is displeased with the Pisk. And someone high up decides on revenge.

Under a new, subtly anti-Semitic, governor, the inmates’ privileges slowly disappear. First, no more rugelach. Soon superchef Dmitry is reassigned to another jail.

The inmates fight back, using all their criminal skills – fraud, finagling forgery… Much of the fun comes from watching the underdogs try to work out a way to outmanoeuvre what they see as the injustices being increasingly heaped upon them.

But at the same time, Stone manages to go deeper into character than a comedy novel would normally go, and confront some of the darkness of anti-Semitism in the process.

You don’t have to be Jewish

He also gives himself the difficult challenge of writing a large ensemble piece, shifting narrative from one inmate to another, as well as to members of staff. This could have led to a jumble of points-of-view, but his technique is too good for that.

Indeed, the wide range of characters add to the comic energy and he keeps his plates spinning with ease.

Having said that, one character does slowly emerge as the emotional heart of the book. One who was dreading meeting the new arrival again, because it would mean facing demons from his childhood. And who must learn, finally, to overcome them.

You don’t have to be Jewish to read The Prison Minyan. Stone is adept at ensuring that any reader can decode the many cultural references, though Jewish readers will no doubt get an extra buzz from some of them.

It’s a witty, enjoyable, sharp-sighted satire that hits many targets – from Trumpism to kosher delis – but most of all adds up to an increasingly gripping story of little, but resourceful, people fighting back against power and cruelty.

Something for all of us to root for.

Read more

The Prison Minyan – Jonathan Stone (Eye and Lightning)

Michael Cohen’s Prison Reality in Otisville: Kosher Food and Shabbat Services

Rugelach recipe – Once upon a chef