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Lighting candles on a menorah can feel like a miracle in prison.
Photo by menachem weinreb on Unsplash

I'm not Jewish, but I do enjoy Jewish religious services ever since I attended a service by Rabbi Ira Book at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California.

Book was arrested during the civil rights movement for protesting alongside Martin Luther King Jr. His services are like listening to living history while learning all things Jewish.

Book has always helped any prisoner who comes to the chapel. He never cared what you believed in, who you prayed to or if you even prayed at all. He was just there to help.

At the time, Book’s clerk was Mr. Wolff, a plumpy man in his 50s or 60s. He'd been a helicopter pilot and was shot down in Vietnam. He loved to laugh, joke and took a middle-of-the-road approach to life.

A man named Aldofo was another beginner to Judaism, learning in the family-like atmosphere.

The resident ultra-Orthodox Jew was our good friend, someone I’ll call Mr. Neil. Mr. Neil was tall and slim, with a serious devotion to his faith. Mr. Neil and Mr. Wolff taught me as much as Rabbi Book.

I learned what Hanukkah represents: “The miracle of the discovery of a small amount of pure oil and its burning for eight days,” as described by the Aleph Institute.

Each night of Hanukkah the “shamas,” or helper candle, is lit, then you light the candles in order each day. The menorah holds all the candles in a row, half to each side of the helper candle. On day eight, all eight candles are lit, concluding the holiday.

Obtaining approval for candles, a menorah and a lighter is a big challenge in prison.

One year, Rabbi Book was not able to be present to help with the celebration. But he made arrangements for us to celebrate the holiday and left Mr. Wolff in charge.

There we were, on the first night of Hanukkah, tucked in the cozy little chapel. It was Mr. Wolff, Mr. Neil, our friend Aldofo, a few others and myself. Mr. Neil watched ever so carefully as Mr. Wolff pulled out the objects needed to conduct the ceremony from his desk drawer.

As he placed the menorah on the table, Mr. Neil asked skeptically where the menorah came from.

“The priest said the rabbi asked him to give it to me,” Mr. Wolff said.

Next, he pulled out the candles.

“Where did those come from?” Mr. Neil asked.

“The Muslim chaplain gave them to me. He said the rabbi asked him to make sure we got them,” Mr. Wolff said, pulling out the lighter.

“And that?”

“The Native American spiritual advisor let us borrow it, per the rabbi’s request,” Mr. Wolff said, not missing a beat.

Shaking his head, Mr. Neil mumbled, “None of this is kosher.” He quickly grabbed his bag and darted out the door.

Mr. Wolff looked around at us.

“Let me see here. A Catholic priest,” he said, taking one finger at a time, “a Muslim chaplain and a Native American spiritual advisor all come together so we can have a Jewish holiday. To me, that's a miracle.”

We all laughed and enjoyed the light and warmth of a fully lit menorah.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Daniel Henson is a writer incarcerated in California.