This is the scifi novel I did NOT submit into the First Chapters contest. Perhaps that was a mistake. Before I send this to professionals, please let me know what you think. Good or bad, I can take it. See a grammatical slip? Please let me know. If enough people request, I'll put up additional chapters. Enjoy!
By Brian Bandell
A space rabbi’s dark motive
By Jacob Stern, South FloridaReport senior writer
BOCA RATON, Fla., March 15, 2043 – Meeting Rabbi Samuel Rabinowitz, the so-called “space rabbi,” I had expected to hear a spiritual tale from his experiences beyond the orbit of Mars. When he unfurled the bloody t-shirt on the patio table I dropped my electronic notebook. The only thing that kept me from bolting out of there with my phone ringing the police was the pained look in the rabbi’s eyes. He was more terrified than I was.
“I know this must be hard for you to hear,” he said. “But this story is even harder for me to tell.”
Rabinowitz had been reclusive ever since his return four months ago. He barely even spoke to his congregation at Temple Beth El other than to lead them in reciting prayers. That’s mainly the reason he was replaced as head rabbi at the conservative sect temple before leaving for space. Since he came back, he’s spent more time in his home in a subdivision off the Glades Road extension carved into the edge of the Everglades than he has in the synagogue. The sensor-loaded iron gate and the tall, bushy trees surrounding his generic, stucco home make it as withdrawn and unwelcoming as his demeanor.
Rabinowitz’s frazzled brown hair was receding from the top of his skull like it was trying to get off him. With a hunched-over posture like a man carrying buckets of water across his shoulders, the 54-year-old rabbi trolled through the unfurnished house, leading me to the screened-in patio out back. Apparently, the patio furniture was the only set his wife left him after their divorce several years ago. I guess he didn’t feel like decorating his new home from space, but he sure had time to install security.
Immediately seizing the opportunity, I hit him with the big question he had been dodging and prayed his answer wouldn’t put me to sleep. “Why did you become the first rabbi to visit the death row inmates on the asteroid mining station when there wasn’t a single Jewish soul there?”
I couldn’t have imagined his response.
“To find repentance.”
“For the condemned prisoners?” I asked.
He lowered his dark brown eyes, hiding them below his bushy eyebrows, and scratched the fuzzy whitening beard on his cheeks. “For myself.”
That’s when he pulled out the t-shirt. He winced like he was grabbing a jellyfish before dropping it on the table. The white shirt was dashed with thin splatters of blood. Some isolated droplets dried down its side. The crumpled shirt was clearly a man’s and several decades old at least.
The rabbi looked at me like I should immediately understand the significance of this gruesome sight. The seizure of shame through his face wasn’t enough by itself to tell this tale…But it came awfully close.
“You’re the first person I’ve shown this to, but you shouldn’t be,” Rabinowitz said. “I went to Starke Station to show it to the man who works there condemned because I hid it all these years while he was slowly dying. As this shirt hid away in my closet, a young girl’s family was unknowingly denied justice. I robbed them of that. And I robbed everyone in my life—my wife, my child, my congregation—of the man I should have been.”
I offered nothing but a confounded stare as I digested all of that, so he continued on.
“I brought you here to bring to light what I should have revealed thirty-one years ago. For that long I’ve asked God to forgive me, but the Lord kept this pain in my soul like a jagged splinter, because I couldn’t confront those whom I had wronged. If I refused to accept the punishment for my sins, how could I make atonement? Every day he wakes up half a solar system away, I have sinned again. I could pray for forgiveness every minute until I die and it still wouldn’t be enough.”
There are times for every reporter when the human in him wants to roar, wants to cry or wants to scream. I didn’t go there to deal with this man’s personal demons. Who was I to confront them? But as a reporter, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Sometimes you have to interview the man who was behind the wheel during the accident.
Thirty-one-year-old murder revisited
The man who Rabinowitz apparently left to become road kill is Jameer Pace, convicted in 2012 of the murder of Tina Hernandez, 16. Her body was found outside a West Palm Beach club stabbed to death. Pace, then 17, was arrested nearby in a crack-induced stupor with the bloody steak knife linked to the murder in his pocket.
He was sentenced to die by lethal injection. But his execution was stayed—along with Florida’s entire death row—as the state “volunteered” the condemned inmates for the asteroid mining venture run by nuclear power giant Space Excavation, Inc. (SEI). Florida won the competitive bidding for the contract to launch the company’s radioactive material mining operations from the commercial spaceport at Kennedy Space Center. The state beat out more liberal states and European nations that didn’t have the death penalty by providing a cheap, disposable labor force.
Florida even limited the appeals process and broadly expanded the aggravating circumstances criteria for the death penalty to ramp up state revenues. The state is paid for the inmates’ labor under contract and was able to retire the needle at the death row in the rural north Florida town of Starke and replace it with the aptly-named Starke Station run by SEI.
A trip to Starke Station is like a prolonged execution. According to Space Excavation, the main cause of death for inmates is radiation poisoning from the highly volatile Aluminum-26 blasted out of asteroids and collected for hyper nuclear reactors that power the majority of the developed world. The average inmate lasts five years on the job before his toxic corpse is ejected into the belt.
Pace has labored at Starke for seven years. According to Rabinowitz, he shouldn’t have been there even one day.
“All but one of the men suffering their final years away in Starke will tell you they’re innocent,” Rabinowitz said. “Jameer Pace is the only man who truly thinks he deserves to be there…But he doesn’t.”
It must be torturous to rot away in grueling labor no closer than two-and-a-half times further from the sun than earth’s orbit. Doing all that for nothing must be far worse.
“How do you know he’s innocent?” I asked as I opened a window in my electronic notebook to dig into court records about Pace.
The rabbi leaned forward with his elbow on the table and rubbed the loose skin on his forehead below his thinning hair. He clearly doesn’t believe in the age rejuvenation stem cell therapy that’s so common among folks over 30. Looking old used to be a sign of maturity, but now it’s more a sign of poverty. For Rabinowitz, I suspect it’s a case of ambivalence. He doesn’t care to hide his weariness from fighting this virus of guilt. Yet he refuses to reveal the source of his affliction.
“There’s evidence to prove it,” the rabbi replied.
“You mean, uh…this?” I pointed to the bloody t-shirt.
“This is the key to proving it.” He snatched the t-shirt off the table and stuffed it into a black duffle bag. “I’ll have the instructions to find this delivered by delay mail to the police station the date of South Florida Report’s next issue. That falls two days after I’m boarding the solar system cruiser to return to Starke.”
Our April publishing date does nearly coincide with the launch of the bi-annual voyage to Starke in the belt. Was that the only reason he chose me? Before I could satisfy my ego, I had to ask the pertinent question.
“Starke Station? What would possess someone to go back to that orbiting dungeon?”
For the first time, he mustered the grit to look me in the eyes. He clasped his trembling hands together. “Pace deserves to hear it from me. I have to ask him for forgiveness.”
“But he’s the reason you went to Starke in the first place, right? Why didn’t you do it the first time and set him free then?”
The rabbi shuddered. His fingers twitched. His eyes sulked away from me—retreating to focus on the duffle bag. “I couldn’t,” he whimpered.
A mysterious trip to the belt
On May 2, 2041 Rabbi Rabinowitz blasted off in a rocket plane towards the orbiting solar system cruiser to begin his four-month voyage to Starke. He was the first religious messenger to accept SEI’s invitation—most likely put out in jest to appease judicial reform activists—to provide spiritual guidance to the condemned miners.
Despite their recent divorce, his ex-wife came with their 4-year-old daughter to see him off before he ascended the ramp alongside the chained murderers, each with an armed guard at their back. Little Ariel buried her sniffling nose into her mother Mandy’s blouse and held tight to her mother’s slender fingers as a towering, tattoo-covered inmate with a shaved head scowled at the girl.
“I’m scared, mommy. I don’t want daddy to go with them.”
His ex-wife gave him a look with those sullen brown eyes. The lines framing them spoke of the stress their crumbling relationship had put her under. As he saw the quivering of her pale, pink lips, he could read them plain as print—as much agony he’s caused her these past few years, she didn’t want him to go either. But for reasons he couldn’t explain, even to his wife and daughter, Rabinowitz had to go.
He knelt down and stroked Ariel’s cold cheek to catch her tears with his fingers. Seeing those round brown eyes and curly light brown bangs made him want to grab her and whisk her out of that awful place to take her back home. She wore a violet dress with a picture of a glittering pony dancing on a comet on it. He remembered pointing it out as he was shopping only six months ago with his wife and daughter—together as a family. Those moments could never return until he made his atonement before the Lord, the rabbi told me.
Rabinowitz had so many things he wanted to tell his daughter, but there was only one thing he could muster. “Eat well and listen to your mother until I get back. I love you, sweetie,” he said. And with that he turned around—unable to bear the sight of more of his daughter’s tears—and headed up the ramp.
It didn’t need to go that way. Rabinowitz’ launch could have gone on with great fanfare. Initially, there was speculation he signed up as a last-ditch PR effort to regain his standing as head rabbi. That theory was quickly quashed. Rabinowitz tried as hard as he could to dampen any enthusiasm the local Jewish community had for sending one of its own to become the farthest Jew from earth. The rabbi skipped every press conference, rejected every social invitation, and skirted every reporter. He wouldn’t even discuss it with congregants after services.
His reclusive motives weren’t hard to spot. Rabinowitz had become withdrawn after the cocaine overdose death of his older brother five years prior. Since then, he kept his commentary during services brief and departed soon after the prayers finished. Rarely accepting office visits, the rabbi constantly studied religious texts, but seldom shared his insights into them. Four months before he announced his plans to travel to Starke, Temple Beth El had demoted him from head rabbi to a cantor role that focused him on leading prayer services while requiring little interaction with congregants. The temple board hired for a young, energetic rabbi that actually showed an interest in the community to assume his prior duties.
Shortly after, Rabinowitz’s wife of 15 years left him and took Ariel with her. He only had every other weekend with his daughter. Sources close to the situation said that even with fewer responsibilities at the temple, he couldn’t find time to connect with his family. When he wasn’t shutting himself off in his temple office, the rabbi was shutting himself off in his home office.
After all that, I wouldn’t blame him for wanting to ride a rocket 150 million miles away. But that wasn’t what was on his mind.
“The whole damn time on that four-month trip, all I could think about was the Amidah—confessing a list of sins during Yom Kippur. It was always the most agonizing part of the service for me. As I begged God to pardon the sins of the congregation that they willingly confessed, I could barely contain myself from shouting out my sin…I had hoped to spend Yom Kippur on Starke. It is commanded that we ask forgiveness of individuals that day. But the cruiser arrived two days later than scheduled. I had an excuse to wait. So many excuses…”
After burning through space for four months with the sun growing ever smaller behind and earth shrinking to the pin-prick size of the other planets in orbit, everyone on the cruiser—even the inmates—were anxious to see something materialize out of the darkness. They found the asteroid belt mostly empty. It was hard to tell they were anywhere special except for the occasional drifting football field-sized rock in the distance. Most asteroids were quite small and spaced far apart. Many were too dim to glimpse more than their silhouettes against the distant rays of the sun.
The rabbi said he asked the ship’s captain if SEI’s mining operation had succeeded in consuming the balance of asteroids in only 11 years.
“Father—oh, I mean rabbi,” the captain responded. The red-bearded Irishman was happy anyone would talk to him on the ship’s gloomy voyage to deliver men to their deaths. “I’ve been on this run since the beginning and believe me the belt wasn’t too crowded to begin with. Sure there’s tens-of-thousands o’ them, but in such a vast space. The only ‘roids big enough to hurt us are in well-documented orbits and easy to spot. You’ve been watching too many movies…Ah, are rabbis allowed to watch movies?”
Rabinowitz wasn’t exactly comfortable with this crew. They didn’t even know the first thing about Judaism. He isn’t comfortable with Jews either, but at least he doesn’t have to keep explaining himself to them. Saying over and over to the ship’s crew why he needed special kosher meals with prepared meat or no meat at all and why he always covered his head grew aggravating. The rabbi generally kept to his private quarters, which, as the ship’s largest, was about the size of a walk-in closet.
When the captain announced their approach to Starke, even the rabbi couldn’t resist going to the main deck for a peek. He wedged his way through the guards crowded around the window and saw two blurry red dots emerge from space like a pair of sinister eyes peering out of a jungle. As they cruised closer, he could make out four faint yellow lights lined up in a row that bisected the red lights perpendicularly. Every few minutes a red beam of light would flash several times like lightning striking through space.
Eventually, the outline of a circular structure about 3,000 feet in diameter came into view. It looked like a tire turned on its side. The red lights were emitted from atop antennas on the top and underneath the station. A reinforced glass bubble protected them, along with other communication and sensory equipment, from small bits of debris. The red beams were lasers used to break up the occasional small asteroid that drifted too close.
The yellow lights came from a few tiny windows—not much for a structure of its size. There weren’t any of the obvious earthly signs of security, such as barbed wire fences and gun towers. Cold and inhabitable space is the ideal deterrent against escape.
Sitting about 10,000 feet off from the station like a couple of still moons were two rockets with small cockpits underneath them. They looked much like blimps. Sturdy synthetic spider web cables connected them to rings along Starke’s edges so they could tow the station closer to its targeted asteroid for miner deployment. The remotely-operated rockets were labeled Starke I and Starke II. The station itself displayed only the logo “SEI” and “Florida Department of Corrections.”
As the rabbi looked on, guards dragged the chained inmates one-by-one to see their final home. Already stinking and unshaven from the four-month, 155-million-mile voyage, the inmates were overcome with relief at the site of Starke as if they were Jonah finally spit out from the dark belly of the whale. Their awe was quickly tempered with dread when the guards told them to enjoy the scenery while they could.
“You’ll be cursing its sight to hell on the way back from ‘roids,” a sneering guard told the lot of them. “You’ll be puking your bloody guts out inside your helmet as the radiation bakes you alive.”
An unreasonable request
The rabbi’s first request upon floating through the link tube and station airlock to board Starke was to visit the prisoners on the lower deck. His wish was promptly ignored.
Rabinowitz was led by a lock-jawed crewman through the upper deck where the crew lived and worked. The maze of doors and narrow hallways was crammed with crew members—mostly men but a few women here and there—scampering about in neatly fastened gray uniforms. None were surprised to see the rabbi, as news of his arrival must have been relayed in advance, but there were no welcoming gestures either. Even the crewmen leading him on wouldn’t make eye contact. He said, “This way,” like he was leading a mule and brought Rabinowitz to his relatively spacious quarters. Before he could even turn around to ask a question, the crewmen was gone with the door shut behind him.
The room was half the size of a basic earth hotel room and its furniture was kept to a simple desk with a wobbly chair and a short bed with a foam-like mattress. A dusty, poorly stocked library consisting of two bookcases was wedged into the closet. The room had been Starke’s prison library—a requirement tossed in as a concession to politicians. All the books were in plastic with the seals intact. Apparently, not much stock was placed in rehabilitation in that place. The rabbi polished up a shelf to keep the Talmud, Torah and a set of daily and holy day prayer books.
As far as I know, these were the furthest Jewish holy books from earth. Too bad he was the only person between the belt and the Mars colony who could read Hebrew. But the English translations on the opposite pages would suffice. Even though non-Jews weren’t usually invited to Jewish services, the rabbi could think of no better way to break the ice with the inmates and find Pace.
After settling into his quarters, Rabinowitz strolled into the warden’s office to schedule a location for daily morning prayers for the inmates. Since there was no sunrise to signal morning, he proposed to follow the clock set for the inmates’ schedule. Half the crew followed those hours while the other half slept during the inmates’ daytime hours so the station would be fully-staffed at all times.
When the rabbi proposed his plan to the warden, the notion of SEI’s invitation not being sincere was quickly validated.
“Morning prayers every damn day? This aren’t no prep school,” Warden Bubba Mitchell said. The bald man’s black mustache twitched as he mouthed off. He had a stocky, bullish frame that made him intimidating despite his below-average height. His cheeks were round like a bulldog’s and his eye as sharp as a K9’s. He spoke with a drawl that sounded very much like Texan to the rabbi’s ears. “Give them animals an inch and next thing you know they’ll want to hear the news and contact their families. It’s better they forget why they’re here and just do their jobs.” He placed a shock rod on his desk and gave an empty beer can a quick zap. It flew across the room and clanged off the wall. “If you’re lookin’ to motivate them, this is all they understand. Your type of services are not required and sure-as-hell ain’t wanted.”
“I came all the way out here to reach these men,” Rabinowitz said. He placed a Sabbath prayer book on the warden’s desk. “Laboring to the death, even if it’s for the good of humanity, won’t be enough for these men to atone for their sins. They need to seek forgiveness from God.”
The warden picked up his electronic pen and started signing documents on his computer screen as if the rabbi had already left. Rabinowitz said he almost got up and walked out right there, but the Amidah prayer kept repeating in his head.
“I’m not leaving until my mission is fulfilled. My agreement states that I’m permitted to stay for…”
“I don’t give a shit what papers you got. I make the rules ‘round here. I want you off my station when the cruiser departs in six hours.” The warden’s eyes didn’t drift from the screen. “There’s nothing you can say that’ll let you stay here.”
“Yes there is!” The rabbi leapt from the chair and pounded his fist on the desk. Sweat bristled around the bulging veins on his temple. He wanted so badly to spill his sin to the warden. The confession nearly flushed out of his gut. But Rabinowitz said that after seeing the way the warden regarded the prisoners he feared that freeing one could put him on the bad side of the boss of this lawless outpost.
Rabinowitz froze and nearly swallowed his tongue as the warden peered over and looked him up and down.
“You really wanna stay? I guess I can’t argue with religious fanaticism,” Warden Mitchell said. “You can have your services in the mess hall on the inmate’s deck below. But you better finish up before meal time—and no services during active missions.”
The rabbi approached the warden’s desk and placed his palms upon the prayer book. He looked the warden straight in the eyes. “I want private meeting time with inmates at their request. All men, no matter their predicament, should have an opportunity to redeem themselves before the Lord. The state may never pardon them, but God can.”
The warden scratched his chin and picked up the prayer book. It was dwarfed in his gorilla-like hands as he opened it. He saw the Hebrew and closed it in a huff. With a grin plastered on his face, the warden slapped the book against the rabbi’s chest. Rabinowitz timidly accepted it back.
“Most of these men can’t read English, much less this gibberish,” Warden Mitchell said. “If you think these men will give a damn about the baloney you’re selling, be my guest. Just don’t interfere with my missions. Maybe if they think they have a shot at heaven, they’ll be more productive. But if they start slacking off and crying the Lord’s name to my guards, I know who to blame.” He pointed at the rabbi. A crewman immediately grabbed him by the arm and hauled him out of the office.
After a restless, sweat-drenched night’s sleep, the rabbi was led to meet the men on death row. A crewman with a shock rod in hand led him to a strongly reinforced armored door in the middle of the crew deck. As soon as the hulking, red-headed guard opened the door to the prison below the rabbi was overcome with a wave of hot, steamy air that stunk thick with sweat. Armed with only his prayer book, the rabbi followed the guard down the steel staircase. A single dim light overhead showed him the way. He heard the crewman slam the door above and thrust the bolts locked.
“The moment I set foot in that dreadful place, my mind blanked. I completely forgot why I was there—and what the hell would possess me to go to such a place,” Rabinowitz told me. “That damn smell tortured my nose. Even when I left I couldn’t get it out of my clothes and hair—the sweat of the dying, the sweat of bitterness, the sweat of hate, the sweat of guilt, and somewhere…the sweat of one poor innocent man.”
Although the prisoners on Starke wore orange jumpsuits, Rabinowitz said no dress code was necessary to differentiate them from the guards. The inmates had weariness in their walk, like they’re battling to stay upright and awake. The only ones with hair were the new arrivals. Blisters and red, swelling patches on their skin showed where radiation penetrated their spacesuits during excavation. The ones who had a mission recently suffered from vomiting, nosebleeds, and bloody gums. Some were curled up in the corner of their cells and barely breathing.
The condemned were afflicted with Starke fever—radiation sickness from repeated ionization exposure coming from the highly radioactive Aluminum-26 they gathered. Their demise was only prolonged by injections of cell-regenerating enzymes that kept the broken bodies of the prisoners’ going when most would have been relieved to die. Some even had organ replacements with stem cell-grown organs to replace those that withered away like fruit left to rot or blew up with tumors.
For those who did die, there was no ceremony and no tears. If they happened to die in Starke rather than on a mission, they were simply jettisoned out into space. As a cold body drifted away from the station to become part of the belt, the inmates often gathered around their cell block’s sole window to watch with envy.
The rabbi crept behind the man who led him down—a guard with broad shoulders, messy red hair and a freckle-dotted face. He was like a Viking stuffed into a uniform. His nametag read “Cody”. The guard led him through death row. Cells lined both sides of the hallway, which went in a semi-circle halfway around the station’s lower deck. One-hundred-six single-bed cells, all occupied thanks to the latest cruiser drop off, held the men who made the long journey across the solar system to pay for their hideous crimes. On that date, according to state records, the inmates kept in Starke were responsible for 187 deaths.
Well, 186, if Rabinowitz is right.
Inside the cells were beds with the familiar foam mattress and toilets that flushed with air suction rather than water. Each cell had a showerhead in the corner over a drain, but the water could only be activated from outside the cell. A hose sprayed foam soap, which was separated from the water after drainage and recycled for the prisoners to use again.
The cells had no personal items. The warden didn’t allow them.
“Well? Say something to them already.” Guard Cody flashed his yellow teeth with a sneering smile. He clearly was a victim of a shortage of dental hygiene supplies on Starke. “What are you staring at? You better not be some human rights wacko in disguise—not unless you want to go orbiting in the belt bare-assed.”
The rabbi waited for the guard to smile but his expression stayed serious. Rabinowitz took a hard gulp. He pressed the intercom on the wall. The red active light shined. He pulled the paper out of the prayer book and glared over his greeting message. Rabinowitz handed it to guard Cody. The annoyed guard droned through the announcement of a Jewish prayer meeting in the mess hall in a half-hour like he was reading the label on the back of a cereal box.
Immediately there was chatter among the prisoners. Some were confused, many laughed and a few were skeptical it was the guards setting a trap. As the rabbi left to prepare for services, he stopped and caught a glimpse of one prisoner—a skinny bald black man with a face of taut skin like a balloon stretched over a grapefruit—staring in silent reflection at the back of his right hand. Etched into his skin was a crude tattoo of a cross. Before too long, he felt Cody breathing wind down the back of his neck. Rabinowitz got out of there as fast as he could.
Shacharit in Starke
The rabbi’s first service had 30 prisoners in attendance. It was his largest congregation while on Starke. Guards led the inmates in and chained them to the welded down chairs. The rabbi brought extra books for them, but the warden forbade them from getting into the prisoners’ hands because of “security concerns”.
He held the Shacharit (morning) service. The rabbi couldn’t read Biblical verses from the Torah or say certain prayers, such as the mourner’s Kaddish, because he didn’t have a minyan of 10 Jewish men. As far as Jewish law was concerned, all he could do was pray solo.
The prisoners didn’t participate, but they were entertained. They laughed their brittle teeth out when Rabinowitz donned his fringed, blue and white prayer garment (tzitzit), wound the black leather strap of the tefillin tightly around his left arm and placed the black boxes containing prayer scrolls against his heart and on his forehead.
“I didn’t know Jews liked S&M!” hooted a nearly toothless prisoner. Drool splattered down his jumpsuit. “I had me a girl once who liked to get tied up. That’s why I’m in this here joint!”
Other inmates mocked his Hebrew prayers. They simulated gagging and moaning in a crude parody of the ancient language. Rabinowitz simply tuned out their name-calling and rude questions and focused on the prayers until the obnoxious prisoners grew bored and left.
The rabbi kept at it. Every day he had another service. He watched attendance drop by at least a quarter every time. At first, the prisoners liked to get out of their cells to do something else besides sleep, eat and wait for radiation to kill them. But eventually, the tedium of the rabbi’s service drove them off. He was no better at leading a congregation on Starke than he was on earth.
Rabinowitz conducted the service entirely in Hebrew. Even his congregation in Temple Beth El recited some passages in English and had a break in the service for a spiritual address by the rabbi. Rabinowitz didn’t do any of that for the inmates. He might as well have been praying with a room full of empty chairs. In a few weeks he was.
“Why couldn’t you just do part of the service in English with them?” I asked Rabinowitz. “Why not communicate with them? Isn’t that why you went to Starke? You can pray by yourself just fine in Boca.”
“I know. I know.” Rabinowitz sighed and raked his fingers over his thinning hair. He seemed ready to break into prayer right there to avoid answering my question. He pressed his wrists firmly on the table, holding them out like they were handcuffed. He remained locked in that position until he could force the words out. “Being outgoing has never come easily to me. I was afraid to speak to them, just like I was afraid to speak to my congregation.”
“But you’re a rabbi. Being open to the community is your job. They depend on the wisdom of people like you. If they wanted someone to simply lead them in prayer, they could buy an audio holograph.”
“You don’t understand!” Rabinowitz pounded the table with his fists. The vibration nearly bucked me from my seat. “How am I qualified to tell anyone how to live their life? What good is advice from a man who keeps his sins locked inside as if God can’t see them? God knows what I’ve done. God knows that I’d be a hypocrite for telling people how to live righteously when for over 30 years I couldn’t get my life straight…My brother Daniel died without ever asking for redemption—without ever even considering it. I can’t accept that for my soul.”
Reading the pages on the left
After three days of praying alone in the empty mess hall, guard Cody greeted the rabbi with a sardonic smile as Rabinowitz entered death row. He asked if the rabbi would stop wasting the prison staffs’ time and just pray by himself in his quarters, or better yet, catch the next cruiser back to Florida and pray there with the rest of the Jew rats.
Rabinowitz sensed Warden Mitchell’s biting attitude in the guard’s remarks. The gnomish rabbi nudged by the muscle-toned man to the intercom and pressed the button. The light blinked. The rabbi reached into his pocket and crumpled up his greeting message.
“My fellow men…If you believe in the Lord, as I do, I ask that you join me in prayer this morning. I will ask God to forgive all souls. I will pray that he lightens your burden and protects you on your missions. I’m not a missionary. I’m not here to convert you. I’m here because I believe your souls—even out in the darkest corners of space—are not lost from God.”
The inmates hurled insults from their cells and they hit him like firebombs. Several men stood up and shook their bars.
“If God cared about us, we wouldn’t fucking be here!”
“I don’t need your blessing. I need a hummer, man.”
“The worst part about going to hell is all you Jews are down there. Go dive in an oven!”
A troop of guards rushed to the cells and jolted the prisoners away from the bars with their shock rods. Steam rose from their seared flesh. That quickly shut the whole lot up. The rabbi nodded to the guards in relief, but they, too, scowled at him.
Rabinowitz had experienced his share of anti-Semitism, but only in relatively small doses in diverse South Florida, where people are familiar with the Jewish minority. He certainly wasn’t used to being in a community that’s openly hostile to Jews with nowhere to turn for help.
The rabbi turned and bolted from the cell block. As the door swung closed behind him, he heard a deep, hoarse voice faintly calling for him. The rabbi pushed his hand back against the door to keep it from shutting. Guard Cody’s smile shattered. He gawked at Rabinowitz like he had three heads as the rabbi poked his head back into death row.
“Rabbi,” the hoarse voice called, no louder than before.
The rabbi stepped back into death row and examined the cell closest to the door. The skinny black man with the taut face was sitting on the metal floor with his back leaning against the outer wall separating the prisoners from the rest of the deck. He stared at the cross tattoo on top of his right hand.
“Rabbi,” the prisoner said again, without bothering to turn his head to the side and look at him.
The rabbi went to approach his cell. Cody seized him by the arm and pulled him close to deliver a message in his ear: “That’s our senior citizen here. The weak old bastard is in the cell closest to the ejection shoot so it’ll be real easy letting the sucker go. If you wanna try getting close to him, that’s your risk. I wouldn’t trust any of these crippled animals.”
Rabinowitz shrugged the guard off. He drew near the cell cautiously, making sure the prisoner didn’t move within reach of the bars. The man remained there with his shriveled forearms resting on his wobbly knees.
“I heard you,” the rabbi said. “Don’t be afraid to speak to me.”
“You sure you aren’t afraid to talk to me?” the prisoner said. “And to the rest of us?” He waved his bony fingers towards the row of prisoners.
The rabbi bowed his head with a heavy sigh. He felt like melting through the floor. Butterflies flapped in his stomach. He saw the prisoner struggling to steady his shaking hand to view the cross. The rabbi clutched his prayer book tighter.
“You’re right. I’ll admit I haven’t been very…outgoing. But I pray you can give me another chance. How can I help you?”
The prisoner turned and gazed at the rabbi with his olive black eyes. “You can’t help me. Where I am now, only Jesus can help me. You got Jesus? I don’t think so.” He turned back to his cross.
The rabbi shuffled his feet closer until his toes almost touched the cell’s bars. “No, I don’t have Jesus. But we both believe in God.”
“And your God can save my soul out here? I don’t want your God. I want Jesus.”
“You believe in the 10 Commandments, don’t you? Remember the first one: ‘I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’ That’s something we both believe, right?”
The prisoner puckered his dry lips as he thought and rubbed his bald head, which had such thin, taut skin that every line in his skull was visible. The rabbi could almost see his brain working.
“Huh…I guess we do believe that,” the man finally said.
“And isn’t that the same God we believe in? I’m not asking you to abandon Jesus. I want to help you find your own way to reach out to God.”
The prisoner turned to look at him again. A bitter frown pulled at the corner of his lips. “And why do you think that’ll help me? I’ve already been sent here for what I’ve done. I’m gonna die. I’m dying now.” His voice was like the sorrowful cry of a cello played with shaky hands. “Hell’s waiting for me. I know it.”
Rabinowitz cringed and shook his head. Finally, a prisoner had opened up to him and he wanted to crawl away and throw up. The prayer book nearly slipped out of his sweaty fingers, but he regained his grip in time to secure it with both hands. He held it up and opened it before the cell, showing the prisoner the pages.
“The pages on the left are the English translations. Come to the service and I’ll read them to you. Perhaps you’ll find comfort in their message.”
The prisoner slowly stood, placing his hands on his knees and pressing his back against the wall to slide up. The skin on the underside of his hand with the cross tattoo was light and disfigured—a severe radiation burn. It oozed puss. The man hobbled on weak knees toward the bars to get a closer look at the rabbi’s book. “Been so damn long since I did read.”
The rabbi peered down at the prisoner’s nametag. “J. Pace.”
Rabinowitz could hardly breathe. Right before his eyes was the horrid state that he cursed upon the man whom he allowed to needlessly sit on death row all these decades. Every scar, every cancer and every mutating, dying cell was because of him. Rabinowitz staggered away from the cell and bumped into the guard.
“Ha, I was just ribb’n ya, man,” Cody said. “This old coot’s too weak to crack an egg. He needs five CCs of juice to get up for a mission. Don’t sweat him.”
Rabinowitz faced the exit and the guard let him out. Behind him he heard the hoarse voice call: “I’ll see you later, rabbi.”