by Michael Arnstein
Day 60, I Witness Something Great: M’Shulum
2 months into my Otisville experience I had the incredible experience of witnessing a remarkable man and his unbreakable faith in the most dramatic way. A blessing to have seen this with my own eyes.
Soon after I arrived in Otisville I learned quickly of who’s who here. There are leaders in all the different cultural groups; and the leader of the JewiSh community here was one man, who had been here in Otisville for 11.5 years.
M’shulum is what they called him.
M’shulum was an unsuspecting leader when he was first pointed out to me. During my first week here I had hardly heard him say a single word; yet I admired him while he was in deep meditative prayers. In his late 60’s or early 70’s he was visibly aged, but still very physically strong. His head was shaved except for the long white hair coming down from the side of his head, payais as they are called; the religious identity of an orthodox Jew, and of course he had a good size white beard. He wore thick glasses for the countless books; learning, studying that he dedicated his life to.
He had a soothing yiddish accent which would reflect with increased audible conviction when certain prayers were recited. He always had his eyes closed during prayer, he wore his tallis perfectly draped over his entire body and head, all while rocking slightly forward and back in a moderate tempo.
M’shulum was a leader who spoke in action, but not in many words; indeed powerful to be in his presence.
I would ask other jewish inmates about him;
Why is he here?
Where is he from?
How long has he been here, how much longer does he have to go?
Everyone who had been in Otisville for some time talked of him with the utmost respect. They would say ‘he’s why we have it so good here. He created much of what you see in the shul, Jewish meals/holidays. Strong Jewish population of Otisville’.
I would have thought that someone involved so much in the benefit of Jewish inmates in this place would be more outwardly politically savvy, a big talker, pusher. But I didn’t see him act this way.
My first interactions with him were small, he started by encouraging me to have a seat (as I often stood in the back of the shul, out of sight). M’shulum would wave his hand towards me, wave over here, as if to say ‘please, come join us’.
He was always in the Shul, like always. l never saw him at meals in the chow hall; he read and prayed in what seemed all-day and into the evenings. He was the light, the burning candle that we weren’t allowed to have in the shul.
I eventually started to step outside of my comfort zone and reach out to ask him questions. I would ask , ‘Can you tell me why we as Jews are supposed to pray three times a day’. He would light up when I’d ask him questions, very eager to answer and explain.
He didn’t push me to come to pray daily, but when I would show up, he’d say ‘it’s nice to see you’ in his accented yiddish-ish voice.
I would watch him a lot when l was in the shul, he had something that was rare and enviable. he was at peace and deeply meditative. I tried to run myself into the ground to get to that state-of-mind; normally I can’t get to that level of hypnotic focus until I’ve run 20 miles or more. It’s a state of mind that I wish I could find easier; it seems M’Shulum had it down and went to that place all the time.
Then about a month into being in Otisville M’Shulum spoke at a Sabbath dinner. I listened carefully to his deep faith released into words for our attending ears.
He had a simple message. With an incredibly convicted voice of passion, raising his tone when it mattered. his linger and hands rising up. even leaning forward up on his toes, reinforcing his truth. He would tell us that we should not live in bitterness because we are here (in Otisville).
‘Do not blame the judge, the prosecutors, the people that tried to hurt you, this is nothing! We are here. We were sent here. We are not leaving here, Not Until Hashem says what next for us!’
He continued ‘Hashem creates everything for us, things we cannot even comprehend, every second. the life we have, the things we are given, we do not even know the millions of miracles and blessings we have. I don’t know when I am to leave this place and it is not my concern. I am here until Hashem says it is time to go. Doing Mitzvahs and studying torah is what I will do here, and what I will do there'(as in somewhere else).
M’Shulum would be someone I knew I could trust for guidance and support in every way. I could reach out to him with any concern. And I did that. There were quite a few very challenging days here for me M’Shulum came to me often during these times and quickly reinforced solutions. But what he did most for me was just being himself, showing me his strength of faith.
Eleven and a half years he had been in Otisville, when was he leaving? He didn‘t seem to care or worry about it.. So when I Was here for 2 months and learned suddenly that he had just been told he was set to leave in 2 days I was incredibly ecstatic for him; a watershed moment that I would witness here in this place.
The other Jews quickly prepared a secret gathering to honor him, to have a small party of sorts on his last night, cakes, drinks, something to share in his honor. We all gathered in the shul at 9pm on his last night, standing room only, even many of the non ~jews came to see the longest serving inmate here in Otisville take his final victory lap. 915pm, we were still waiting for him. A few guys went to find him. they came back. they informed us that M’Shulum appreciated our thought of him, but he did not want the attention on him, that he would only come to Shul to pray at the regular 930pm evening prayers and say a few words afterwards. He was not antisocial, rather a humble humble man, deeply observant and not someone to celebrate himself. In his mind he had no glory, all glory was to Hashem.
At 930pm he walked in quietly as he always did. took his unsuspecting seat on the side of the shul, next to rows of prayer books. He put on his tallis and for 15 minutes recited as he always did. Not one of his prayers had extra fervor or emotion outside of what was his usual. Not a tear in his eye, no change in his clothing or disposition, as if absolutely nothing was different in his world; simply because nothing was different. As solid and perfectly put together like a diamond crystal, M‘Shulum showed me he was as pure as could be in his faith. How after 11.5 years of mind-numbing incarceration could someone be totally unaffected by his forthcoming freedom, it baffles my mind in wonder.
He spoke for 10 minutes, it was the same of what I heard from him a month ago when he spoke at a Shabbat dinner. He would say ‘Hashem brought us here; we are here. We are here until he says we should leave. We have every moment to be grateful and to look for mitzvot that we can do for our fellow yid. Bitterness and frustrations at the judge, the prosecutors, the guards, the world, it is meaningless. We are all Hashem’s pride and joy, we must never forget this, everything is for and from Hashem; we should never forget!‘
And with that, he gave a few hugs, he wished many of his fellow inmates a blessing for peace; all while no break in his disposition; like-realIy-no-break, just watched and learned. He came to me and said ‘Keep it up’. He and I knew what the message was. That’s all he needed to say, and all I needed to hear.
The next morning I awoke early at 7am for morning prayers, M’Shulum was leaving at 730am. I watched him for the last time, nothing new; he was as he always was.
When he finished his prayers, he took off his tallis, opened the shul door as calmly as he always had, and I watched him walk down the long hallway to the building exit, other Jews stood against the side of the wall. watching in silence. This was something to see, eleven and a half years.
The building Exit door was open for him, really truly open for him.
A car was waiting in the parking lot… and just like that…
Hashem said he should leave.
So he left.
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