Posts Tagged ‘Jewish prisoner’


October 10, 2012

Notes from Director/Producer, Rhonda Moskowitz

This is the 4th in a series of essays about Martin Grossman, in preparation for my presentation at LeMood, Montreal.

I originally wrote the essay below soon after the execution of Martin Grossman. His execution was a profound experience that forever changed me. I had filmed Martin four times on death row over two years and also his surviving family members. I stayed with his family before, during and after his execution and slept in the bed of his late mother, Myra. An intense experience at the very least. People on death row and executions are something you read about or see in movies. A human face was put on a decades-long tragedy of epic proportions.

Aunt Rosol, Martin Grossman’s closest surviving relative

May, 2010

It’s been a little more than three months since Martin Grossman’s Feb. 16th execution. His last words were “Ahavat Israel,” meaning love of Jews.  Before Martin uttered these words, he recited the Shema, the watchword prayer of the Jewish faith. (Here O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one…”)   It’s traditional for a Jew to say the Shema  before he or she dies. How many Jews have uttered these words before they’ve been executed? This is unknown. It’s also unknown how many Jews in the United States  have been executed. I presume the numbers are few. Martin had a deep feeling for Judaism. He reconnected with his faith after ten years of virtual isolation in his 6 by 9 death row cell.  “I am an island of Judaism,” he wrote in a letter to his aunt, Rosol, during Hanukkah in 2008, 14 months before he died. Grief, emptiness, disbelief and depression, pretty much describe my feelings about Martin’s execution over these last few months. If I feel traumatized, it’s almost unimaginable how both Martin’s family and the family of his victim, Peggy Park, feel.  I speak to Martin’s aunt, Rosol, several times a week and I know she feels indescribably horrible. Rosol never turned her back on Martin and wrote to him and visited him on Death Row up until the day he died. I don’t know how Peggy Park’s mother and brother feel. (Her father died.)  Do they feel a sense of justice and closure? Or do they feel empty? Martin’s execution did not bring Peggy Park back. From news accounts, Peggy’s mother and brother had been waiting for over 26 years for Martin to be executed. I personally don’t believe in the death penalty, but if there is going to be a state sanctioned murder of a murderer, it should be swift. As a filmmaker, I now have the challenge of documenting Martin’s redemption, (Teshuva), and showing his humanity without sanitizing the tragic murder he committed. It’s now time to get past my grief and move forward. I didn’t know how much my documentary film meant to Martin until I read letters received by others. Seems like he intrinsinctly knew he had a lot to teach us. Paradoxically and astonishingly,  Martin, a murderer, died a Ba’al Teshuva. I’ve been given a monumental task, but I’m up to the challenge. I filmed Martin on Death Row four times, I’ve filmed his family for two years, and I have home movies from his childhood, newspaper articles and photographs. I also had the honor of filming Martin’s funeral and burial. I still need to document the tremendous advocacy efforts to save Martin’s life.  It’s  through my film, that Martin’s voice will be heard. He has a great deal to teach both Jews and non-Jews and the lessons are life-altering and profound.

From a Jew in the Depths of Exile in Prison

August 24, 2009

The following blog is written by Philip, (Fivel),  a young, 24 year old man in my doc-in-progress, RETURN (TESHUVA) . Philip sent this blog from his prison  for me, director Rhonda Moskowitz, to post. (I wrote to him to feel free to send me blogs.)

By Fivel Ben Avraham — 

Hello again to my friends and welcome to this site. “First timers” hope that you enjoy and return, and faithful returnees, it’s good to have you come.

I’ve been in prison now for 5 months. Adjustment has been completed and now time is left.  I have 58 more months left. (Well I guess I did a little better than Joseph.)

Galuth (exile). Exile is something that is hard to come to grips with when you truly realize the depth of your situation. Not only am I away from my family, Courtney (my Beshert), my two children, Elijah and Camden, but I’m away from my community, my heritage, and my people. 

Out of 420 inmates at my current “residence,” I’m the only Jewish one. What type of service could I offer to my people in such galuth?  The Talmudic sages say that “we were cast all over the world to spread “Ahavat Chesed” (Acts of Loving Kindness), and to bring the world closer to Redemption.

We as Jews have to set examples of how to live. In the Ethics of Fathers, (Chapter 2 Verse 5), Rabbi Hillel says, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man!” The very breath of our existence and the path to Olam Haba, (the World to Come), is loving God with all your heart, soul and might, and loving your fellow man as you love your self. (Deuteronomy Chapt. 6, Verse 4; Leviticus Chapt. 9, Verse 18)

So, how does this relate to my galuth?  I believe I was exiled to not only find Hashem, (G-d), live righteously, and improve myself drastically, but also help others on the path of their own individual Teshuvahs (Return). We are all scattered to the four corners of the earth to rectify hate, depression and spiritual death. Only when we all strive with our entire beings to help our fellow man and live upright will our preceding prayer to the Shema be answered.

We are in the month of Elul. It’s time to study more, work on our vices and help-out more.  So with that being said, may the Lord gather our dispersed from the four corners of the earth and grant each of us our portion in the wondrous land that He has bestowed upon us.

“I Don’t Understand How This Could Have Happened”

July 23, 2009

Received a comment this week from a gentleman about Martin, the Jew I’ve been filming on death row, that has cut like a knife through my heart.  Here’s what it said:

“I knew Martin as a teen and his mom was such a nice lady. Martin was such a nice kid that I don’t understand how this could have happened…”

I don’t understand how this could have  happened, either, and it’s one of the biggest issues I grapple with in the course of making the film.

“This” refers to the brutal murder of a 26 year old female Wildlife Officer, Peggy Park, 25 + years ago by Martin,  when he was 19.

I’ve been filming Martin, and also his aunt, uncle and cousins.   We were supposed to film Martin’s  mother, Myra, but she  unexpectedly died on the first day we flew in to film this extraordinary family.  I never had the chance to meet Myra, (may her memory be a blessing), but everyone, without exception, has told me that she was a wonderful, sweet, thoughtful and giving woman.  

I’ve seen amazing wonderful, sweet,  thoughtful and giving qualities in  Martin. It’s so hard for me to wrap my head around the paradox of such a brutal crime being committed by a person who possesses such humanity.

I’ve previously written about how Martin declined to be let out of death row to attend his mother’s funeral. This unselfish act took my breath away. Martin thought his presence might turn her funeral into a circus-like atmosphere. Instead of being with family members, some of whom he hasn’t seen in over two decades, he opted to remain isolated and grieve alone in his cold, hard cell.

There’s a great deal we can all learn from the complicated nature of the souls of human beings.  I’m still working my way through all of this.

I only hope the film can do justice to the people who have the courage to be in it,  and the multi-layered, profound and complicated subject matter. Viewers won’t look at anyone, even themselves, the same way.

From an LA County Jail: The Holiness of an Imperfect Life

May 15, 2009

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

I received the following from a rabbi who works as a prison chaplain in the Los Angeles County Jails. The rabbi sent something profound and unique written by a prisoner, as a comment to my blog. What this prisoner has to say is too powerful to be buried in the ‘Comments’ section. Here it is, unedited:

“May 4, 2009

The following drash was written by one of the men I worked intensively with during his incarceration at Men’s Central Jail. He has been sober and studying and learning as he prepares for his eventual release. We are both very hopeful that this will be the end of this chapter in Dylan’s life and that, indeed, the holiness and hope that he has been experiencing will be just the beginning for him of the life, however imperfect it may be, that he can have. A holy and sober life.

Rabbi Yossi Carron
Rabbi Chaplain, Los Angeles County Jails
California State Prison, Corcoran

A drash from Dylan L., delivered at seder inside the Los Angeles County jails

Matzah is the bread of affliction, but this year it became for me the symbol of the disease of addiction.

Matzah is flat, plain and simple. Our first bite of matzah at the seder is a bit of a shock. Darn right, it’s the bread of affliction, you think. After that first bite we cover it up with charoset, dip, anything we can to make it taste like something! Iver the days of pesach we get rather creative with it: sandwiches, matzah brie, salsa, charoset.

This is what we do to ourselves in the disease of addiction. We take that first bite of an imperfect life and we just don’t like it. But, like matzah on pesach, it’s all we’re permitted to have, So we cover it up—with alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling. No matter what we slather it with though, underneath it is still the matzah of that imperfect life.

It takes the burden of addiction and the blessings of recovery, enslavement and freedom to understand that the plain, flat, simple piece of matzah, like the imperfect life we once tried to cover up with our addiction, is truly holy.”

Hanukkah Letter From Jew on Death Row

January 13, 2009

Notes from Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz


The following letter is written by Martin, one of the people in our film, a Jew who has been on Death Row for over 24 years. Martin’s mother, Myra, died unexpectedly in April, 2008. She visited her son, who was her only child, consistently over the decades with her sister, Rosol. Rosol has continued to visit Martin since her sister’s passing. This letter by Martin is written to his Aunt Rosol.


“Dear Tantellaski,                        Chanukkah Night

                                                   Feelin  (drawing of a sad face with tears)

Happy Chanukkah,


May this wacky letter find you all in great spirituality and healthfulness.


Really missin’ my mammalaski…


Thank you… for the unexpected $50.00 gelt,

And the book of cute holiday stamps.


Thank you…. for the love and wishes for Chanukkah.


Be forwarned, the other page enclosed was scribbled

during, shortly after my watching 2 Chanukkah specials on P.B.S. 

Please photocopy and give one to Rhonda for me. 
Maybe she’d want to include it in the documentary?


I’m outta here.

May the lord always be with, bless,

love and protect you always.


Love always,



 I have just been blessed to view two Chanukkah programs on P.B.S.


1) “A Chunukkah Celebration” hosted by the beautiful Fran Drescher.

2) “Lights Celebrate Hanukkah Live Concert 2008”


The following are some raw emotions during/after my viewing:

Being able to feel such sadness and heartache at one point during

Chanukkah –  or this is the first Chanukkah without my dear mother…

 and quite probably “my very last Chanukkah” due to my situation!

But to also feel such joy/pain, pride/regret, watching all of the beautiful

children and young adults singing the blessings – – 

I am overwhelmed by a wave of emotion,

my heart begins to swell, my throat tighten up,

and all of these damn cold tears stream down my cheeks

instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

yet also so very painful and bittersweet

the absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

for the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with —

No wife, No girlfriend, No children

No fellowship here in Death Row – i am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No candles to light, No menorah, No Dreidel to spin (the remants of my youth)

No latkes, g-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how i your brother in Judaism must endure

I am but an island of Judaism here,

self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own maccabean miracle,

surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat,

(Insert:  Unable to read this line)

Instantly I have been reduced to a blubbering mess.

Something so moving, so beautiful,

Yet also oh so very painful and bittersweet

The absolute reality of my loneliness takes hold of me,

For the first time in 24 years I now feel its’ total being!

No one to share the miracle with –

No wife, No Girlfriend, No Children,

No fellowship here in Death Row – I am all alone here amongst 300 + !

No latkes, g-d how i miss the latkes.

Please understand this is how i your brother in Judaism must endure …

I am, but an island of Judaism here,

Self supporting, self reliant, steadfast in my beliefs, observances.

Lord I long for my own maccabean miracle,

Surviving in my existence for over 24 years and counting, quite a feat

g-d willing I might still have more survival aspects to mount.


                                                       Martin Edward Grossman #A089742


                                                           On Chanukkah Kislev  25.  5769.”




Gail (“There but for the Grace of God go I…”)

December 16, 2008

When I first met Gail, her twenty-three year old daughter, Dana,was incarcerated, one month away from giving birth to her second child, her other daughter, Michele, was one week out of rehab, and her son, Max, was soon to graduate from 8th grade at his Jewish day school. Talk about stress! Dana had also attended Jewish day school. My own daughter went to Jewish day school and Gail and her children could be any “typical” middle class Jewish family. I look at Dana and hope and pray that what happened to her never happens to my daughter. I look at Gail, and think “There but for the grace of God go I.” This scares the hell out of me.  


Dana’s Oxycontin addiction shattered her life and her family’s, and our film is documenting their struggles.  I’m deeply touched and extremely grateful that Gail and her wonderful family have opened up their lives to us as filmmakers. Gail could not have been more warm and welcoming to us from the moment we met her and she continues to be this way.


The birth of Dana’s baby was a mixed blessing. On one hand, a brand new beautiful baby granddaughter came into this world.  On the other hand, she was born in a prison hospital. We’re all one step away from our lives falling apart. Addiction can happen to anyone.


I love Gail, Michele, Max and Dana. Their struggles could be any of our struggles. I hope our film, TESHUVA (RETURN) will take away the shame and stigma of addiction and also of incarcerated Jews. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

No Homecoming On Thanksgiving For Jewish Prisoners

November 25, 2008

Notes from Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

For many of us, Thanksgiving is a holiday of reconnecting with family and coming home. However, there is a segment of our nation’s Jews for whom there will be no Thanksgiving homecoming. Thousands of our nation’s Jews will spend Thanksgiving inside prisons, profoundly isolated and devoid of any genuine human connection. 

Some of the people in my documentary film-in-progress, TESHUVA (RETURN), will spend Thanksgiving alone in their cells. Drug addiction is what caused  them to commit the crimes for which they are being punished.  Not only will they suffer on Thanksgiving Day, but their family members will suffer. There will be empty place settings at the Thanksgiving tables of their families, as well as feelings of shame.

So when you give thanks, thank G-d you’re at a Thanksgiving feast with your loved ones, and not sitting alone in a cold, hard cell. Be thankful you haven’t gone so far astray that you land in prison. Or if you have made grave mistakes, be thankful you escaped such a harsh punishment.

Be charitable in your thinking. Remember that penitentiary comes from the word penitence. Jewish prisoners are our brothers. We are our brothers keeper. Jews who have committed crimes are human beings. Every Jewish soul is capable of transformation and redemption. Every one.


November 21, 2008

From Producer/Director, Rhonda Moskowitz

You are:

  • a prisoner
  • a drug addict
  • a thief
  • an adulterer
  • a sinner
  • an alcoholic
  • a murderer

We tend to define people who have gone astray in their worst moment where they remain stuck in our minds, sometimes for the rest of their lives. This is dehumanizing, especially if the person is trying to turn their life around, make ammends for any harm they’ve done to others, and do Tikum Olam (repair the world). We also tend to look at people as “bad” or “good,” and these strict perceptions are why, especially in the case of public figures, we have fallen idols, or why we’re surprised when a revered person we know has feet of clay.

You are:

  • a mother
  • a father
  • a doctor
  • an accountant
  • a writer
  • a waitress
  • a rabbi
  • an activist
  • a minister
  • an environmentalist
  • a poet
  • a husband
  • a wife
  • an entrepreneur
  • a teacher
  • a philanthropist
  • a son
  • a daughter
  • a student
  • helpful
  • compassionate

People are not all black and white, they’re complicated, multi-dimensional and contradictory.  There are many shades of gray and many facets to an individual. It diminishes us to perceive and define people narrowly.

In the course of making TESHUVA (RETURN), so much of what I know about people has been turned inside out and upside down.

It is my hope that when viewers see the film, their minds will expand, and the way we look at ourselves and others as people will never be the same again.