For the JC
The Prison Minyan by Jonathan Stone Lightning Books £8.99 (pub date January 13 2022)
Rare is the book which is so delicious that you want immediately to read it all over again, but Jonathan Stone’s glorious The Prison Minyan is just that.
Just the title makes you want to dive into the pages straight away. A prison with a minyan? How could that be? And yet Stone’s extremely fertile imagination has not made up Otisville in upstate New York, the “penitentiary of choice for white-collar Jewish offenders”.
If anything the real Otisville is even more arcane than the fictional version, boasting as it did one strictly Orthodox felon who was serving 835 years and was not due to see the light of day until the year 2754.
But Stone, a recently retired creative director in a New York advertising agency, who did most of his writing of his nine previous novels on the commuter train between Manhattan and the Connecticut suburbs, has had wonderful fun in peopling his prison with fraudsters, forgers, trigamists (three marriages at one go), and a couple of rabbis. Naturally, one is Reform and the other is Charedi — but both are criminals.
We meet an Adler and a Nadler, a Rosen and a Levy, a Solomon and a Lerner. And we are introduced to our guys as they intone the Mourner’s Kaddish at the regular minyan, which appears to be a cross between a coffeeklatsch and the kibbitzing you might hear in a summer camp or a locker room.
For Rabbi Morton Meyerson, serving five years for having embezzled $3.5 million from his New Jersey congregation, the service is an opportunity to pose philosophical conundrums to the assembled men. They are expecting a new addition to the ranks — Stone’s fictional version of Michael Cohen, the former Trump Organisation lawyer, who in 2018 pleaded guilty to tax evasion snd a variety of other infractions. He’s spoken of in contemptuous terms by the other inmates: “The Cashmere Canary. The Songbird Nerd. The Rat Man of Seventh Avenue. Mighty Mouth.” Finally, they settle on The Pisk. Big Willie, one of the prison guards tasked with overseeing the minyan, asks what’s a pisk? “Yiddish for mouth”, Nadler tells him. “A loudmouth, a blabbermouth”.
The arrival of the Pisk upsets the applecart in more ways than one. He’s a celebrity on the outside, but most of the long-term inmates have got used to having their own way. They have a relatively compliant warden, a wonderful chef whom they have patiently taught how to make rugelach and blintzes, and the intellectual sparring ground of the minyan, where jokes and slights are paraded around in equal measure.
But the Pisk has upset people all the way up to the president, and so there is an attempt to get one of the Jewish prisoners to “Epstein” him — that is, assassinate him. But the multiple moral questions introduced at the minyan lead to a dazzling denouement, in which the finest brains, who once traded in top-class duplicity for their own advancement, go from gaming the system to beating it.
Stone’s dry tones, present in his previous terrific novels, surely reach an apogee in this most cherishably Jewish of books. Almost makes me want to drink a toast: “To crime!”