Three bearded rabbinical students in a rented car,
trunk filled with menorah kits and grape-juice bottles,
we pulled away from the all-male yeshiva in New Jersey
and headed west, into the heart of Pennsylvania, to celebrate
Chanukah with the Jewish inmates of Allenwood’s many prisons.

In our black hats and coats we entered
the lobby of the medium-security compound
and took our place in the check-in line behind a woman
not dressed at all like the rabbinical-school secretary —
the only other female we had seen in weeks.
She had come to visit an inmate.
What was exposed was exposed, and what wasn’t
was so tightly garbed that no questions remained
as to proportions or angles.

“We can’t let you past the checkpoint dressed like that,”
the crew-cut officer behind the front desk said
to the woman, probably in her thirties, standing, ashamed now,
beside her two small sons. She had
more sensible clothes in her bag, she said.

While she retreated to the bathroom to change,
a Catholic chaplain led us through a courtyard
framed by barbed wire and watchtowers,
across the icy, vacant basketball blacktop,
and into a small multipurpose room,
where Jewish prisoners,
released for that hour from their errands,
were awaiting our arrival.

The priest looking on with a guard
through a two-way mirror,
we poured the grape juice into paper cups
and told the old story of the Jewish flame lasting longer
than nature’s laws could explain.

We told the story of the soul,
which, against its will, descends
into the body’s confinements.
And then we tried to explain
the great Chasidic paradox
as our rebbe had explained it to us —

how, despite its loftiness, the soul was created
only to sanctify the body,
to lift up the lowest realm.

The priest reentered the room.
“About time to wrap it up, rabbis.”
So we set out the tin menorah kits and lit the candles,
and then we were ushered once more across the frozen courtyard
and into a warm van, to be driven to the next facility.

As we pulled out, we could see the woman,
now dressed in a puffy coat and plain winter hat,
packing her two sons into the back seat
of her beat-up sedan.
I imagined her dressing in her bathroom that morning,
applying makeup in the mirror above a sink
spotted with children’s toothpaste,

thinking not at all of the sexual act
but of how to give her husband or boyfriend
something to look forward to.

She must have inhaled deeply
and then squeezed her body into the tight black dress.