My Inner Maccabee

The best Chanukah gift I ever got was when I was twenty three years old: I was sprung from prison.


I was on tour to promote my first record album.  It was an album of Jewish folk music and that winter we were booked to do Chanukah concerts up and down the California coast. I was the girl singer, a last minute replacement for the original singer, who, as I see it now, got out just in the nick of time.


Our band, Serenade, sang in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, places where the audiences were thrilled to see anyone under the age of ninety singing Jewish music, and they showered us with appreciation and, occasionally, payment. 


One evening, as we were finishing up a rehearsal, the violin player called me over.


“Don’t say no right off the bat. Just hear me out.”  He said.


I waited.


“We have a gig next week.”  He said slowly. “It’s at a prison – but wait! I spoke to the chaplain, and he assured me that this is one of those places that’s like a summer camp for businessmen.”


I said yes. I was young and hungry and gigs were very exciting to me in those days. I think of myself now, jaded and bitter, cutting right to the chase about fees and perks and travel time. Each new gig now elicits my long suffering sigh, as if I had been asked to scrub someone’s toilet with my spit and toothbrush instead of having been offered good money to sing for them. But back then, back in the beginning, I would have agreed to anything. Which is how I wound up in prison.


Monday morning, the first day of Chanukah, Rick and Ron, the other band members, came to my house to pick me up for the concert.  They were dressed in their finest gig outfits: matching blue and silver vests and berets.  Ron added a pair of suspenders to complete his ensemble. I was wearing huge cloisonné dreidle earrings.  We looked about as sharp as a trio of  weenie Jewish folksingers ever did.  I climbed into the back of Ron’s ’64 VW Bug and settled into the folding lawn chair that served as a back seat.  Ron handed me a cowbell on a rope.


“Here. You’re horn monitor.” He said.  I didn’t even bother to ask about a seat belt. 


We set out on our journey.  I was a little bit nervous but I am always a little bit nervous.  I am a hand wringer by nature, living on bravado and Pepto Bismol.  This gig was definitely outside my comfort zone.  I pulled out a bag of trail mix and a bottle of Martinelli’s apple juice.  Ron unwrapped three ham sandwiches.


“Eat up!”   He said. Eating pork? Treyf! Wow. Serenade was one badass band. I felt giddy, naughty, like Johnny Cash, as I bit into the forbidden sandwich.


Three hours later, we came to a sign that read “State Prison. Lock Your Doors.”    Then, another sign:  “Do Not Stop For Hitchhikers.”  That seemed a tad foreboding. And why were there three rows of barbed wire if this was a minimum-security summer camp prison? I got very quiet as we turned onto the long road that led to a guard tower.  I held tightly to the cowbell horn, ready to ring it in an emergency.


A guard stopped our car, and motioned for us to roll down the window. This took the collective effort of all four of us, as the car had no interior handles.


Surely we were at the wrong place.  The prison we were looking for had chaise lounges and picnic tables and, in my fantasies, a couple of William Morris agents who would offer us a record deal right on the spot.


We came to another barbed- wired gate. It was surrounded by uniformed, gun-toting guards who took one look at Rick’s carrot-orange frizzy hair, Ron’s rainbow suspenders and my terrified face, and they nearly cracked a smile. I reached in my pocket and fondled my last two Pepto Bismol tablets nervously. A man in a blue work shirt and jeans, the scariest man I had ever seen in my life, took a step towards me. The guards did nothing. Oh sweet Jesus, what was this?


Scary Guy checked us out.  I stared at the ground.  Ron asked him, “So, are you a guard?”


Scary Guy laughed as hard as a guy with two lit cigarettes in his mouth could laugh. Even one of the guards snorted.


“Yeah, right.”


I nodded as if I understood what the hell he was laughing about. He spit out one of his cigarettes and continued.


“I’m gonna be paroled next week so I gotta work the gate.  See if I can be trusted.”  He said this last thing to the guards, who – this time – actually laughed out loud.  I just didn’t get prison humor, I guessed.  I watched Mary Tyler Moore.


Scary Guy picked up his clipboard and read my name off his list.


“Ann Brown” he said. Yikes, how did he know that?  For once, I thanked my parents for giving me such a common name. It would take him years to find me in the phone book when he got out.


He looked at the clipboard again. “ Address is 2757 Sycamore, right?”


Thank God. He had the address wrong. I nodded quickly.


Ron pointed to the clipboard. “Huh, Ann. I thought your address was 2787 Sycamore…”  He smiled at his new best friend, Scary Guy. “You’ve got her address wrong, buddy.”


I’d move out of my house as soon as we got home.


We were led to a small, glassed-in room.  A guard pointed to the sign above him and read it out loud to us.  Do not move unless instructed to do so.


“Welcome to maximum security” he said.


I turned to Rick, ready to scream, but he seemed preoccupied, calming the many facial tics he had suddenly developed.


 No one instructed us to move so I just stood there, sweating. An electric door opened and Don Knotts walked towards us. Well, maybe not Don Knotts, but definitely his parallel universe twin.


“Hello!”  He yelled.  “Chag sameach!”  This was too surreal.   “Happy Chanukah! Welcome, welcome.”  You would have thought he was the head of the membership committee at Temple Beth Israel.. He ushered us down a wide hallway, chatting merrily about the do’s and don’ts of prison visits. I barely paid attention, since I was not going to be doing anything other than staying alive and then, quitting Serenade forever.


“Just never let yourself be out of arm’s range from a guard and you’ll be okay!”  He handed each of us a pin that said, “Happy Hanukah from your neighborhood Rabbi”. 


“On the house!”  He laughed. “The Big House!”


We were led to the gymnasium, where the concert was to be held.  A makeshift stage, consisting of three large platforms and a white sheet for a curtain, had been set up for us. A ring of armed guards standing shoulder to shoulder circled our stage. I was starting to hyperventilate.


Chaplain Don Knotts introduced us to an extremely intense looking man named Teejay, a prisoner who had been assigned to help us backstage.


“What are you going to sing?”  Teejay asked me.


“Uh, some Hanukah songs” I said. I felt it was best to leave out the hard “ch” on Chanukah.  Teejay just squinted at me.


The gym door suddenly buzzed open, and endless rows of blue work -shirted prisoners filed in. I was supposed to open with “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” to this crowd?  I prayed for a miracle, anything that would save me from having to do this.  Please, please, please.


“I can’t do it,” I whispered to Rick. “I really can’t.”


“Sure you can.”  He picked up his violin and nodded to Ron.


They began the introduction to “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”.  The booing and hissing started before the first guitar chord was even played.  We were going to die there, I just knew it.  Ron played my entrance cue on the guitar.  My legs grew down into the stage and held me there, paralyzed.  I looked at Ron and shook my head no.  He played the intro again, this time a longer version, to give me a few extra minutes. I took some deep breaths.


 I want to do this, I told myself.  Rick shot me a look of desperation. His facial tics were out of control, like he had stuck his wet finger into an electrical socket. I couldn’t keep him there playing that same violin line forever. He needed me. I walked to the front of the stage and took the microphone in my hand. The prisoners grew quiet for a moment.  I heard guitar and violins playing somewhere above my head, as if the angels were calling to me.


I started to sing in a very shaky, almost inaudible voice. “Hevenu shalom aleichem, hevenu shalom aleichem….. –” And then I stopped. I felt dizzy, like I was going to faint. I put my hand on the microphone stand to steady myself, but I knocked the microphone to the floor.  I bent down to pick it up and instantly, wild clapping and hooting filled the gym.  As I stood up I heard a low chant rising up from the bleachers. I tried to make out what they were saying but all I could hear was Rick’s violin playing in my ear, signaling the beginning of our next song. The chanting settled to a low roar.


“Chanukah oh Chanukah come light the menorah….”  I struggled to find my voice.  I looked around the gym and I thought about all the protests I had been to in my life, all the petitions I had signed to improve prison conditions.  Of course, I had never actually been in a prison before this but I had imagined myself quite the activist, having stood outside the courthouse one warm summer Santa Cruz evening holding my hand-lettered sign that read build people not prisons. I had brought my guitar that evening and led the twenty or so people there in chorus after chorus of “I Shall Be Released” and everyone had cheered. Why weren’t these men cheering?  Or even listening? And why were they booing me again?


I stopped because I couldn’t even hear myself singing.  What was that chant? I turned to Ron.


“Bend over.” He mouthed the words to me. What?


“They’re saying ‘bend over”, he repeated.  My heart froze in fear and I broke out in a cold sweat.


Suddenly, an alarm went off and the doors buzzed open.  A voice came over the loudspeaker.  “Concert’s over. Units A and B proceed to roll call.”  The prisoners filed out of the gym as quickly as they had come in. They chanted, “bend over”, as they passed in front of me - very softly, very creepy.


The concert, which was supposed to have lasted one hour, had lasted only eight minutes.  It was a Chanukah miracle. 


We stood on the stage and watched the enormous room empty out. Chaplain Don Knotts assured us that we were a big hit and offered us gigs the following Chanukah at Soledad or Folsom.  He told us not to answer right away, just to think about it, and then he left.


Rick and Ron went behind the sheet to pack up their instruments and I was alone with Teejay.


“What just happened?” I asked him.


“Nothing. The usual. We don’t go for this shit much.  Except they liked it when you bent down.”


I accepted the compliment.


“What was that first song you sang?” he asked.


“Um, it’s called Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” I told him.


“I like it.”  He said as he jumped off the stage.  “It sounds like it’s about Heaven.”


Clouds filled the sky and rain pounded on Ron’s little VW Beetle as we drove home that night.  The car had no windshield wipers so we had to roll the windows down and hand-wipe the windshield every few minutes.  I sat in the back, holding on to my lawn chair, bundled up in my down jacket.  I was freezing and exhausted. But I was victorious. I had stood on that stage and faced my fear, faced death; as sure as Judah Maccabee had faced the army of Antiochus Epiphanes.  I turned to the open window, letting the rain soak my sweaty face, and threw my last two Pepto Bismol tablets out into the dark night.