When we first greet one another, it's clear that we're both trying a little bit too hard. We trade one too many "how are you"s. Conversation stutters and starts.
But soon we settle into a rhythm. He received the bedtime shema prayer I sent, and the small pamphlets about Jewish prayer and about forgiveness in Jewish tradition. I show him the JPS Tanakh I brought for him (though I won't be able to give it directly to him; I have to leave it with the corrections officer for inspection, and it will be forwarded to him with the evening mail) and the copy of Anita Diamant's book Choosing a Jewish Life. He seems surprised and grateful.
We talk a little bit about what the journey to choosing Judaism usually looks like. I describe the general course of study, the usual timeframe, the mikveh immersion. Ordinarily, I tell him, I would ask a potential Jew-by-choice to start coming to services and experiencing Jewish life in community, but that's obviously not an option for him until he's out of jail. He tells me he might be out some months sooner than originally anticipated, and that he can't wait to try services.
We chat about how the Christian sabbath day became Sunday, about what "kosher food" means (and doesn't mean), about a friend of his in the jail who is Catholic and enjoys friendly argument about scripture and prayer. I tell him that friendly argument is a very Jewish mode of Torah study, in certain ways. I tell him about the Jewish weekly lectionary, and show him the dog-eared page in the book which marks this week's Torah portion. He asks me what Jews think about Jesus, and we talk about some different ways of understanding Jesus: as a Jew, as a teacher of Torah, as a rabble-rouser, but not as divine.
I ask him about what holidays are like, in this local house of corrections. He tells me a little bit about Thanksgiving, about a fellow inmate who gathered a group of them to eat together and who said they were like his family. He tells me he's never connected with Christmas and doesn't anticipate that he'll miss it. I tell him about Passover -- he's never been to a seder -- and I wonder aloud whether I might be able to orchestrate a seder here.
Over the course of our hour, I learn a little bit more about what his life is like here. He tells me that more than anything else, it's like a retirement community in there. Little foam couches, tables where guys play cards, two televisions (with headphones for the sound.) It's really quiet, he tells me. Most of the guys are taking classes through the local community college. The place is empty enough that they closed down one of the pods and had to let several COs go.
There are only fourteen women in the local jail right now, he tells me, and I think: wow, what would it be like to be one of those fourteen? What an insular little community that must be. The communal dynamics must be fascinating, and probably not easy to navigate. While we're chatting, a man in orange walks through the visiting room and he and my inmate (who is wearing navy blue) smile and exchange greetings. The orange jumpsuit means he's still awaiting sentencing. The two of them knew each other, before.
I depart with a promise to provide a Jewish calendar, and to return in a few weeks with thoughts on what we might study together. I still don't know where this relationship will lead, but I feel blessed to have the opportunity to find out.