The Squirrel Hill Redemption: A poet and prisoner bond over shared humanity, whitefish

The Squirrel Hill Redemption: A poet and prisoner bond over shared humanity, whitefish

Najmuddeen Salaam has met Rabbi David Lazar twice: once in prison and the other time in Lazar’s Squirrel Hill home.  

During 18 years of incarceration in various Ohio penitentiaries, Salaam read Lazar’s poetry.  

Those poems “became a comfort,” he said. Reading them, he felt “somebody understands — [my] joy, sadness, triumph, struggles.”

As often as once a week, Salaam received new poems while in prison, courtesy of Lazar’s friend Jo Dee Davis, a teacher and peace activist.

“I’ve watched the weddings and births and deaths in his family through the poetry,” said Davis.

Finding resonance in Lazar’s rhymes, Davis incorporated them into a volunteer writing group she held with prisoners at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio. “Fifteen years ago, I shared his poems with the first group I worked with at Marion.”  

Poetry gave the inmates a creative outlet, a topic that Salaam addressed after his 2009 release during a TEDx event.  

Inspired by Lazar’s poetry, Salaam became a licensed barber and later a staff barber at the prison.  Interested in Spanish, he began studying the language and became fluent within six months. He became a mentor for other prisoners and founded a program called H.O.P.E. (Helping Ourselves Pursue Excellence), which he currently directs.  

After his release from prison, Salaam completed a bachelor’s degree in management and leadership from Capella University. He took a factory job but decided to quit, sold his home and returned to Marion, Ohio, to continue working with inmates.  He joined WinWin, Inc., a nonprofit that “provides education and resources for non-violent conflict management to children and the adults who influence their development.”  He became community development director for Healing Broken Circles, a nonprofit that offers “space for healing and learning for those touched by the justice system.”  He also co-curated several TEDx events, including the first one ever conducted in a prison.  

Several weeks ago, Davis called Lazar, a former spiritual leader of New Light Congregation.  She said that she was traveling to Pittsburgh to attend a TEDx event.  The program, like the ones that she and Salaam had worked on in Marion, followed the TED pattern of helping “communities, organizations and individuals spark conversation and connection.”  

Davis also said that she was bringing a guest, Salaam.  

“He wanted to see if I was for real or if she just made me up,” Lazar said.  

On the afternoon that Davis and Salaam were scheduled to arrive, Ron   Rager and George Childs, both friends of Lazar, were already waiting in the poet’s living room.  Childs started reading Lazar’s poetry three years ago —   Rager even earlier. Before lunch, Rager presented Lazar with a gift — a bound copy of Lazar’s poetry.  

 Davis and Salaam arrived.  Lazar welcomed his guests, offered introductions and invited everyone to sit.  In Lazar’s cozy Squirrel Hill dining room, the group enjoyed a lunch of homemade bread, vegetable soup, smoked whitefish salad, blueberry muffins, walnuts, fresh cherries, kichel, raisins and mixed fruits.

As serving dishes passed hands, Lazar interrupted to ask if a word of Torah could be shared. Then, cracking open an ink-splashed spiral notebook, Lazar sang one of his verses:

I write this song

For Jo Dee,

An old friend and teacher

For Naj,

And his hope

And courage.

I write this song

For my friend Ron,

Who organized my poems.

I write this song for George,

Who keeps finding light

And sharing the light.

I write this song for Adam,

A young guy

With lots of energy

Amazing energy.

I write this song

For myself and for

The meeting.

I write this song

For God, creator of songs

And poems.

As Lazar finished he looked around the table. His friends were silent. Salaam was the first to speak.

“OK, you’re real now,” he said.

Finally convinced Lazar was real, he turned to a reporter to express his surprise at the rabbi’s appearance.

“The poems made me think that he was a lot younger.”

Lazar, sporting a white dress shirt, a blue hat and a beard, is 74. “OK, I see it, there is an artsy, eclectic nuance” about him, said Salaam.

The conversation resumed. Rager explained the cultural significance of smoked whitefish salad.  Salaam and Davis shared stories about their work with prisoners, helping them to imagine and prepare for re-entry into society. Childs shared his interest in prison education.  

Rager, for his part, said he had come simply to support Lazar, a friend of more than 30 years.

That fact impressed Salaam.

“For someone to take the time and stay connected for two, three decades, that’s a hell of a man,” he said.

He then looked around at those gathered and said, “I don’t get too many quality moments like this.”    

A long pause followed, as everyone seemed to absorb what Salaam had said.

Then, the silence was finally broken, as someone asked for more whitefish salad.  Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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