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In Prison

Having been homebound for so many years, I smoothly slid into quarantine. The relatively easy adjustment for me and the contrasting emotional turmoil experienced by others, and the strange and contradictory reactions of so many, reminded me of an essay written by Elizabeth Bishop in 1938, “In Prison.” 

I can recognize in her words so much of what I observe in others.

Although emotionally tempted to fall into some traps, I ultimately disagree with her conclusions.


She shocks me with her opening, “I can scarcely wait for the day of my imprisonment. It is then that my life, my real life, will begin.

“The reader, or my friends, particularly those who happen to be familiar with my way of life, may protest that for me any actual imprisonment is unnecessary, since I already live, in relationship to society, very much as if I were in a prison.

This I cannot deny, but must simply point out the philosophic difference that exists between Choice and Necessity’

“I may live now as if I were in prison, or I might even go and take lodgings near, or in, a prison and follow the prison routine faithfully in every detail – and still I should be a ‘minister without portfolio.’”

Bishop describes her hotel-existence with its corridors, cellular rooms, large, unrelated group of people with different purposes in being there that animate every one of them as a sort of prison life.

All of this and more is for her a parody, ‘a fantasy on my real hopes and ambitions.’


There’s a huge psychological burden in the decision to not regularly pray in a synagogue. It was never a matter of choice. Physical and neurological handicaps made it a nightmare for me to go to synagogue. 

However, the bottom line, as I often heard from others, was that I chose to not put up with the painful and challenging effects of praying in a minyan.

Quarantine’s prison relieved me of that burden.

Limiting my visits to Connecticut, Manhattan Beach, Cherry Hill and Baltimore was a conscious decision because of those same physical and neurological challenges. Three of my trips landed me in the ER, however, ultimately, the choice was mine. My children knew it. My grandchildren knew it.

Quarantine’s prison forced the choice.


Ms Bishop describes prisoners in small towns and villages who were ‘not really imprisoned at all! They are dressed in a distinctive uniform…and sometimes, but not always, a leg iron.’

‘Then they are deliberately set at large every morning to work at assigned tasks in the town…

‘But the prisoners, if such they could be called, – there must have hung over their lives the perpetual irksomeness of all half-measures, of “Not knowing where one is at.”

‘They had one rule; to report back to the jail, as “headquarters,” at nine o’clock, in order to be locked up for the night; and I was given to understand that it was a fairly frequent occurrence for one or two, who arrived a few minutes too late, to be locked out for the night!

‘But this short-sighted and shiftless conception of the meaning of prison could never satisfy me; I could never consent to submit to such terms of imprisonment, no, never!’


How often do we see the challenges for the young men and women who return from the Israel Year post high school, who study in Yeshiva and attend university without the structure of Yeshiva and seminary?

There definitely ‘hangs over their lives the perpetual irksomeness of all half measures; not knowing where one is at.” Ms. Bishop rails against life without clear definitions. 

People in the forties and fifties, perhaps consciously, rarely so, speak with such fondness of the structure of youth you can hear in their words echoes of, “I can scarcely wait for the day of my imprisonment. It is then that my life, my real life, will begin.” 

Rumblings of “Tell me what to do. Take control, please!”


E. Bishop: “In Prison”

‘Books about imprisonment I like the best of all literature, and I have read a great many; although of course one is often disappointed by them in spite of the subject matter.

‘Take The Enormous Room. How I envied the author of that book!

‘But there was something artificial about it, something that puzzled me considerably until I realized that it was due to the fact that the author had had an inner conviction of his eventual release all during the period of his imprisonment. It is a flaw, or rather an air-bubble, that was bound by its own nature to reach the surface and break.

‘Give me Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, or Prison Life in Siberia. Even if there seems to have been some ambiguity about the status of prisoners there, at least one is in the hands of an authority who realizes the limitations and possibilities of his subject.’


“The author had had an inner conviction of his eventual release all during the period of his imprisonment.” 

No clear definition.

Can I go to the grocery store? … the dentist? … nail salon? … my sister’s funeral? …her Shiva?

One rabbi is keeping his synagogue secretly functioning. Other rabbis are prohibiting synagogue. Some allow weddings, others do not. 

Eventually, this will end. Why are people speaking of permanent changes?

How many community leaders truly, “realizes the limitations and possibilities of his subject”?

This quarantine is half-prison; it’s not the real thing, says one, even while the other is desperate for more structure, especially in a world gone mad.


E. Bishop: “In Prison”

‘I understand that most prisons are now supplied with libraries and that the prisoners are expected to read the Everyman’s Library and other books of educational tendencies. 

‘I hope I am not being too reactionary when I say that my one desire is to be given one very dull book to read, the duller the better. A book, moreover, on a subject completely foreign to me; perhaps the second volume if the first would familiarize me too well with the terms and purpose of the work.

‘Then I shall be able to experience with a free conscience the pressure, perverse I suppose, of interpreting it not at all according to its intent.

Because I share with Valery’s M. Teste the “knowledge that our thoughts are reflected back to us too much so through expressions made by others”; 

‘And I have resigned myself, or do I speak too frankly, to deriving what information and joy I can from this – lamentable but irremediable – state of affairs.

‘From my detached rock-like book I shall be able to draw vast generalizations, abstractions of the grandest, most illuminating sort, like allegories or poems, and by posing fragments of it against the surroundings and conversations of my prison, I shall be able to form my own examples of surrealist art! – something I should never know how to do outside, where the sources are so bewildering.


I hear voices of authority in many of the quarantine prisons. Firm, absolute opinions. Personal readings and applications of Halacha. That exquisite freedom of living within the quarantine prison.


Ms Bishop describes the process by which she will write on the wall, how she will look different from the other prisoners, how to be slightly “unconventional,” and how she will go about establishing herself as an authority.

It is only on the penultimate page we discover the reason for her desperation to be In Prison:

‘Many years ago I discovered that I could “succeed” in one place, but not in all places, and never, never could I succeed “at large.”

‘In the world, for example, I am very much under the influence of dress, absurd as that may be.

‘You may say, – people have said to me – you would have been happy in the more flourishing days of the religious order, and that, I imagine, is close to the truth. 

‘But even there I hesitate, and the difference between Choice and Necessity jumps up again to confound me.

“Freedom is knowledge of necessity”: I believe nothing as ardently as I do that.

‘And I assure you that to act in this way is the only logical step for me to take.

I mean, of course, to be acted upon in this way is the only logical step for me to take.


It is this final thought I reject. I rebel against being acted upon.

I live for choice.

It was choice that allowed me to live far beyond the walls of my quarantine


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