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llllllllll,[lll|jll IIIL]]IJIILJIIIIJII lii I, , - , .... F PAGE By Sandee Brawarsky New York Jewish Week Talk about struggling for freedom. Louis Ferrante has been there. He spent 8 1/2 years in prison serving time for armed robbery, credit card fraud and racketeering. He has been out of jail for five years, but he says he has been celebrat- ing his freedom since 1998, when he began the process of converting to Judaism, while behind bars. "Unlocked: My Journey from Prison to Proust" (Harp- erCollins) is Ferrante's mem- oir of his years on the street as part of the Gambino crime family, the investigations into his crimes, and his years in prison, where he became a voracious reader of Tolstoy and Cervantes as well as Jewish history and Torah. "Unlocked" has been optioned for a feature film by Lorraine Bracco (who played the therapist in "The Sopranos"). When asked in an interview with The Jewish Week about what freedom means to him, he replies, "Had I not gone to prison and experienced all that I had. I may have lived out my life in ignorance, a set of light chains. Freedom exists in the mind; I felt more freedom while cramped in a cell than most people will ex- perience in their entire lives." As he explains, reading set him free. When his books were taken away by prison guards, he'd turn to writing. "They couldn't take away what I had up here," he adds, HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JULY 3, 200(I Wiseguy finds Judaism in jail pointing to his head of dark short-cropped hair. The Jewish Week met with Ferrante last week in a Manhattan caf, while he was visiting from the new home he shares with his girlfriend in the Catskills. He paid for coffee with his credit card, and then joked that he used to carry only cash and isn't used to having credit cards in his pocket. "At least not my own," he quipped. Ferrante is candid, articu- late. energetic and warm--a very likeable fellow with a lot to say. He enjoys talking about his theology. That he is a lover of books is clear from the way he speaks of them, and quotes from them with ease. "He has a rough exterior, but you can sit down and talk about philosophy, literature, poetry, and anything in Juda- ism." says Rabbi Arthur Rul- nick. who formally converted Ferrante to Judaism after he was released from prison. The two men have remained in close contact. In a telephone conversation from his home in Baltimore, Rulnick, who retired from the Woodbury Jewish Center on Long Island, explains that he'd heard of jailhouse conversions and never took them seriously. But that changed when he encountered Ferrante. "I don't think I've ever met a layperson who knows as much about Jewish history and the Bible as he does." Now 38, Ferrante grew up in an Italian Catholic family in Flushing, Queens, with crosses on the walls, statues of saints and his own rosary beads, but no books--his father read the racing forms, his mother read magazines she picked out of the trash in front of a doctor's office and he cheated his way through school without ever reading. The family didn't go to church much. He speaks lovingly of his late mother, who was very open-minded and taught him to be the same way. He took care of his mother when she was suffering from cancer, and she died in his arms. That was when he gave up on God. and that's when he dates the time he "went astray." He saw people doing bad things and driving big cars and living in large homes, saw good folks driving buses and living simply, and he chose the former route. Speaking for his friends. he writes. "The streets, the whole mob thing, gave us a sense of honor and camarade- rie we needed.An 18-year-old in the Midwest. searching for these same feelings, might join the Army or Marines. In our neighborhood, we threw in with the Mafia." On the streets, Ferrante had a good name among fellow wiseguys. And when he was arrested, he wouldn't rat on friends and associates in the Gambino family. He was sentenced to serve in various maximum-security prisons, living among men serving life sentences who had nothing to lose. There, he faced uprisings, sexual threats and killings. Once, when he took the rap for someone else's breaking prison rules. Ferrante was thrown into solitary confine- ment. After a captain called him an animal, he began to think for the first time about whether those words were true and what made him that way. With plenty of time on his hands, he started con- templating the existence of God, and began reading--he thought that books might have answers to his ques- tions. He read the Gospels, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and the Torah. and felt power- fully drawn to Judaism. He approached the prison rabbi who at first thought Ferrante was interested only in the ba- gels, but then understood his seriousness, and then would look for Ferrante when he didn't show up in synagogue. "Prison is designed to break the individual. It out- right destroyed me, the old me. I was building someone better." he writes. When Ferrante. who began wearing a kipa in jail, started to feel that there was a Cre- ator. he believed that some higher power was punishing him for bad things he had done. And he was grateful that he hadn't been killed or given a life sentence, and that instead he had been given tools to improve himself. "I was totally alone," he says. "There was nobody to talk to. The guy next to me was talking about who he whacked. But that was the key. Had I had outside influ- ence, it may have been det- rimental to my belief system developing. I was a rebellious guy. I had nobody telling me what to believe." He kept reading. Bibliogra- phies lead to book lists, and he'd ask his family and friends to send certain titles. He read Maimonides and Rashi and Torah commentaries from many perspectives. His eyes were opened by William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and Max Dimont's "Jews, God and History." And he discovered that he loved to write. He began a novel set in the antebeb lum South. His ambition to write was fueled by the "same cockiness I had running a crew at 19 or 20 and thinking I could rob an armored car and get away with it." When released from pris- on, he was determined to publish the 1.100-page novel. But friends encouraged him to write a memoir. He wasn't interested in revisiting his mob days, but agreed to write a sample chapter as his parole period was ending. Soon he had a literary agent and book contract. Ferrante, who'd had many girlfriends in his old life. also was interested in romance. and was hoping to meet a Jewish woman. But he found it difficult to find someone who wasn't going to judge him based on his past. While in a pizzeriawith a friend, he struck up a conversationwithayoung woman. She told him she was a librarian and she was read- ing Ovid's "History of Rome," which he had also read. He told her he was an aspiring writer. She has since converted to Judaism, a decision she made on her own. he says. They keep a kosher home and observe the Sabbath and holidays. When he was writing the memoir, they'd drive together to scenes of crimes he committed, like a corner in Queens where he hijacked a truck, and he'd recall as much as he could. They also visited Lewisburg prison and sat outside the walls. "I was astounded by what I remembered." he says. "I was scared of myself the person I am now got more nervous thinking about what I did than I got when I was doing it." Ferrante still hopes to publish the novel, and to write others. He has been writing his own Torah commentary since his prison days, and hopes to publish that. citing Onkelos. a well-known com- mentator during Talmudic times, who converted to Judaism. The author dons tefillin every day. He doesn't attend synagogue, as none are walk- ing distance from his home. He thinks he might enjoy living in a Jewish community someday, but he also likes and is used to --solitude. "Unlocked" isverywell writ- ten. at turns disturbing, funny and astonishing. Ferrante's story is an example of rresil- ience and is a vivid reminder that change is truly possible. Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic at the New York Jewish Week, from which this article was reprinted by permission. Agency From page 1A for recent reform efforts at the agency. "There are things we can do to make it more readily apparent that this situation is not political, that things are being decided on a merit basis and that is a big part of the reforms that are being presented at the assembly," said Steve Hoffman. an asso- ciate member of the agency's board of governors and also president of the Jewish Fed: eration of Cleveland. "'I believe the agency has radically transformed it- self," Hoffman said recently, before the meetings in Israel. "It is much more effective, financially responsible and a less political organization than it has ever been. There are some more steps we have to take to make it more self- evident." For the past two years, agency leaders have been pushing to reform the or- ganization through a series of sweeping changes aimed at erecting some barriers between the agency's main governing body and the World Zionist Organiza- tion a body inwhich Israeli politicians traditionally have wielded heavy influence and which also makes up half of the agency's board of gov- ernors. The WZO has been a primary target of critics alleging cronyism. Last November, the Jewish Agency drafted a new frame- work to try to de-politicize its most public post, that of chairman, which in years past essentially was an appointee of the prime minister. The framework called for the agency to form similar nominating committees to select its executive board chairman and top lay posi- tion, the chairman of its board of governors. The prime minister would be consulted on the selec- tion of the executive board chairman, but his approval would not be required for either post. The delegates' assembly overwhelmingly approved the reforms June 23 in Jerusalem. "This man earned the right to be the head of the Jewish Agency," said one source close to the agency. "He is sup- posed to stand at the nexus of the Jewish world abroad and in Israel. And if anyone deserves to stand there it is Natan Sharansky because he struggled in the Diaspora as a Jew and reached great heights in the Israeli government as a minister." Additional information provided directly by the Jew- ish Agency for Israel. lran From page 1A dency from Mahmoud Ahma- dinejad, there's no indication that he or the clerics who are the power behind the Iranian throne would put the brakes on that country's accelerat- ing nuclear program, Jewish leaders argue. And analysts across the spectrum agree that an elec- tion that was apparently stolen and the more visible assertion of authority by radical Islamic clerics augur poorly for President Barack Obama's controversial goal of opening channels of dialogue with Iran. "The president has talked himself into a corner," said JINSA's Bryen."Now he's been told by the real powers in Iran that they don't want to talk. So what do you engage with?" Absent a genuine negoti- ating partner, ratcheted-up sanctions may be one of a nar- rowing universe of options, they say. The consensus posi- tion among major pro-Israel groups is that now is not the time to ease sanctions or tone down the rhetoric on Iran. Some Iran experts disagree. Recent developments point to a situation they say is far more complex than is portrayed by politicians in Washington and foreign policy advocacy groups including many in the Jewish community. "Obviously, the current unrest suggests far more discontent with the govern- ment than was supposed," said Shaul Bakhash. a top Iran scholar at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an Iranian Jewish exile. "Everybody realized people were unhappy, but few real- ized it was so close to erup- tion. That's not untypical of the Iranian situation for the past 100 years; people put up with misgovernment and corruption for a long time, then the government crosses some red line and people erupt in outrage. That's what we're seeing this time." Bakhash said the current situation also points to "dif- ferences among the Iran leadership that are deeper than supposed." The Jewish community's portrayal of the Iranian lead- ership as almost Hitlerian was "always an oversimplifica- tion," he said. Thatperspective echoed the starkly black-and- white view of the George W. Bush administration, which relegated Iran to an "axis of evil" status that ignored very real fissures within the Iranian leadership and the big gap between the people and the government. The results of that ap- proach, Bakhash said, in- cluded "missed opportunities" during previous internal reform efforts. While recent sanctions aimed at banks "have hurt Iran," he said, "the fact is that under a regime of sanctions for the past 20 years, Iran has developed a missile capability, has developed an advanced nuclear energy program and, according to many experts, is on its way to developing a nuclear weapons capabil- ity. So it's very difficult to say sanctions are working; I would argue that it's time to try something new." Likewise. bellicose rhetoric from those outside Iran--na- tional leaders in Washington and Jewish leaders alike can only help Iran's leaders rally a skeptical public to the cause of a failed leadership, he said. The Jewish community is making abig mistake by push- ing tougher sanctions at this juncture, said Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation. "The Obama administra- tion is calibrating its response just right," Levy said iastweek. "To do anything that disturbs or upsets that balance would be highly counterproductive." Toughening sanctions and other harsh measures would "make the efforts of those who are challenging the election results and seeing a freer Iran inestimably harder," he said. "Right now. this is all about nuance." There's no indica- tion the Jewish community is responding with that kind of nuance, he said. But Jewish leaders argue that nuance isn't the issue. Iran's quest for nuclear weap- onry and the radicalism of the clerical leaders who are the real power behind the government are. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, agreed that the unfolding drama in Iran means everybodymU. S. policymakers and Jewish leaders alike--is "flying by the seat of our pants. We are beginning to ask: Are we witnessing something potentially historic here? Are we seeing the first steps in the reversal of the 1979 revolu- tion? If there's evena glimmer of a chance of something like that happening, even more is at stake here." By rigging the recent presi- dential election and cracking down on those protesting re- suits, the regime has "revealed its true colors." he said. "What many in the Jewish commu- nity have been saying that Iran is led by a dangerous, demagogic regime--has been demonstrated." The result, he said: there's no need for major Jewish groups to alter their strong rhetoric on Iran or their policies on issues such as sanctions. "We have no choice butto keep calling attention to the [nuclear] program precisely because we do not have the remotest clue what the outcome of these dramatic events in the streets may be," he said. "I don't see any problem in focusing atten- tion on the nature of the regime, the brutality of its response and the lies of Ah- madinejad, who proclaimed Iran the freest nation in the world. We have an obligation to speak out." Reprinted with permission from the New York Jewish Week, www.jewishweek.com.