Louis Ferrante’s Journey From the Mob to the Mesorah
Many of us arrive at moments in our lives where circumstances oblige us to reinvent ourselves: the loss of a job, an empty nest, a family emergency. But there are very few of us who have reinvented ourselves as completely and profoundly as former Mafia star Louis Ferrante–and even fewer who have accomplished it with as much grit and determination.
In America, everybody loves a rags-to-riches story, one that chronicles the struggles of an immigrant or a log cabin-born orphan to beat the odds and become wealthy or powerful. But in the case of Mr. Ferrante’s personal evolution, the meaning of “rags to riches” takes on a new meaning. His young adulthood was spent moving up the fast track in the Mafia hierarchy, walking around with huge wads of cash in his pockets and heading up sizable teams who worked under him. On a spiritual level, however, these ill-acquired gains could not be considered riches at all. On the contrary, they were dirty “rags” that he ultimately rejected, as he made a conscious choice while serving time in federal prison to pursue instead the intellectual and spiritual “riches” that were to be found in literature, Judaism, and, ultimately, the depths of his own soul.
Now in his thirties, Louis Ferrante lives in a large house on eight acres in the Catskills (“my mortgage costs less than what I was paying for a little hole in Long Island,” he jokes with a New Yorker’s irony). He has become a successful writer with book tours in the U.S. and Europe, today making an honest living with his hard-won literary skills. The intonations of his speech betray his Italian-American, Queens-born-and-bred origins; when he opens his mouth, one imagines a truck driver who works for NPR. Aware that he is speaking to a frum lady from Brooklyn who may be possessed of more delicate sensibilities, he minds his manners and apologizes in gentlemanly fashion on the rare occasion a four-letter word slips out.
By the time he was twenty one, Louis Ferrante had become a “successful” businessman, if “business” can be broadly taken to mean organizing truck hijackings and “success” means being able to fence the loot. It was fast money for a young man still taken with a world of fast cars and fast women. Spending all his time on the street, running with Italian cronies, he learned to negotiate the Mob’s “system,” and was eventually singled out for notice by the Gambino/Gotti clan.
“I used to spend a lot of time at the home of one of the Gottis,” Ferrante recalls. “Their son was a good friend of mine, and I was on the way up with six to twelve guys under me.” Aside from the dubious pleasures and privileges of being a ben bayit in the Gotti manor, the Mob’s codes of honor and machismo appealed to an ambitious young man looking to make his mark. In the memoir of his transformation, Unlocked: From Prison to Proust, Ferrante observes: “The streets, the whole Mob thing, gave us a sense of honor and camaraderie we needed. An eighteen-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.”
But those famous Mafia codes of honor had begun to show themselves shot as full of holes as a mobster caught in a turf war. Betrayed by a Mob informer in the 1990’s, Ferrante found himself slapped with federal charges of credit card fraud and theft that threatened to put him behind bars for life. He was shuttled from the nightmarish Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn to a maximum-security prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and finally, based on good behavior, to a medium-security prison in Otisville and another in the Adirondacks. Each prison was its own individual hell with its own bizarre rules, contradictions and codes of behavior, and it took all of Ferrante’s street smarts to emerge relatively intact both physically and emotionally. What saved his sanity—and ultimately prepared him to succeed in life beyond the prison walls—was his discovery first of the life of the mind, through books, and then ultimately the life of the soul, through Judaism.
THE MAKING OF A MOBSTER
How does an otherwise nice Italian-American kid get started on a life of crime? Ferrante grew up in Flushing, in a rough neighborhood near the projects. “My father still lives there,” he told me. “At this point I think he’s the only non-Asian on the block. But in my day it was Italian, Irish, Jewish, black—and everybody was tough.” His parents sent him to Catholic school, where, he jokes, “the nuns were worse than the prison guards, and as for the priests, I’m still waiting to see their names pop up in the newspapers one day!” He finished high school, just barely, because he had promised his mother he would. But he had already started a career in theft, everything from truckloads of cheap underwear to travelers’ checks.
His mother, who seems to have represented all that is good and true in life to Ferrante, was diagnosed with a cancer that culminated in a long, painful death when he was twenty. “I took care of her till the end, and she died in my arms,” Ferrante says with great sadness. “At that point I think I lost any faith in G-d I might have had. Why had He taken my mother, who was so good? I had enough brains to ask the questions, but not enough brains to answer them.”
There was little to stand in the way of an embittered young man continuing to dig himself deeper into a life devoid of any moral compass. Ferrante describes a life of sleeping until noon, hanging out in restaurants and pool halls, and plotting the next heist. He hung out with buddies whose colorful names sound like a parody of television Mafia characters: Funzi, Tony the Pork Chop, Botz, Tony Twitch, Barry the Brokester. Ferrante and his underlings never killed anybody, but when he and his minions would hijack trucks, they would bind the driver with duct tape, shove a pistol in his mouth to show him they meant business, and dump him on the side of the road a few miles down the road.
But there were certain contradictory moments of altruism amidst the violence and the thievery, certain glimpses that Ferrante had the potential to one day turn his heart to the good. For example, he narrowly missed going to jail for beating up a thug in a bar who was bullying an old, defenseless man; on another occasion, while driving a stolen car, he saw a young tough slash at an elderly woman and steal her purse. Outraged, he left the car in traffic, overtook the kid and recovered the purse.
And when the Feds came to bust him in 1994, there were also indications that, beneath the bravado and the thrills of pulling off impressive heists, Ferrante had a well-buried but nevertheless far from defunct sense of morality. “I was subpoenaed by the FBI and asked to cooperate,” he says. “A lot of mobsters, once they’re arrested, suddenly ‘see the light’ and begin to sing.”
But he himself still respected the rapidly-becoming-archaic Mafia code of silence. “I felt it was beneath my dignity to give in, and I had a sense of conscience not to betray people,” he states. “My pride said I should just take my licks for what I had done, and the truth is that underneath, I really knew I deserved to be punished.”
LIFE BEHIND BARS
Ferrante was sent to the Metropolitan Detention Center for three years while his verdict dragged on. There were no outdoor recreation facilities, no windows, no night or day or privacy; the skin on his face began peeling from a lack of sunlight. The inmates passed the time gambling and abusing each other. The cells crawled with roaches and rats, and stunk of excrement and misery.
Finally he was sentenced to a maximum security prison in Lewisburg, PA. “That was a zoo,” Ferrante says. “The first day I got there, the alarms went off—a race war had started after some members of the Aryan Nation hacked two Black Muslims to death. Somebody handed me a machete and told me how to defend myself.”
Ferrante’s account of prison life, especially in maximum security, shocks in its account of brutality, injustice, and abuse; the sub-human conditions of the prison reduced these already-violence-prone people into little more than animals, stealing from each other, beating each other up and worse. “You sit at the dinner table with murderers,” Ferrante recounts, “who would easily kill you for your dessert or for cutting ahead in the chow line.” (When he was finally upgraded to a medium-security prison, he marveled that the prisoners were actually allowed to eat with plastic knives.) It was a world where one could only survive by being considered dangerous, and where kindness was interpreted as weakness. Ferrante remarks wryly, “It’s difficult to feel sorry for hungry wolves when they’re gnawing at your flesh.”
In prison, all sense of time slipped away as one day melted into the next; all sense of initiative was stripped by the boredom and imposed routine of prison life. Trivial issues like what was served for supper took on inflated importance. Inmates sorted themselves into cliques: the blacks, the Hispanics, the Italians, the white supremacists. The guards could be every bit as brutal as the inmates; Ferrante describes one incident where guards literally beat a man to a pulp, high on “violence without accountability”—after all, who would believe the complaints of a bunch of convicts?
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS THE WORD
One day, while Ferrante was at the Metropolitan Detention Center, one of the wardens refused to let the inmates on his block see the relatives who had come to visit them. Visiting day was a long-awaited event for the convicts, and they were furious. That night, an aging Sicilian Mafiosi threw an apple at the guard, setting off a fury of banging and throwing of objects at him. The guard hit the ground and radioed for reinforcements.
Ferrante, the youngest man in the block, was accused of throwing the apple and starting the conflagration. Refusing to implicate his cellmate, he was stripped and sent into solitary confinement. They starved him for two days, at the end of which the captain came to visit. Ferrante asked for a mattress, and the captain laughed at him. Furious, Ferrante grabbed the captain’s tie to strangle him—but it came off in his hand, it was only a clip-on! “Do you think we’d wear real ties with you %@$# animals?” the captain jeered.
“That somehow really shook me,” Ferrante told me. “And something clicked in my mind—today, I think the only explanation is the grace of G-d. I began thinking: am I really no more than an animal? Why am I this way? Do I have any purpose in this world? I realized I had a million questions and no answers.”
Ferrante now had two months of solitary in which to contemplate his million questions. By the time he was put back in his regular cell, he already felt himself pulling away psychologically from his Mafia friends—an unusual move, since Mafiosi types normally only distance themselves from the Mob when they rat on each other. But now he was tired of endless card games and cigarettes, tired of the same old pointless banter and reminiscing, and felt possessed of a strange new hunger to find some answers to his questions—in books.
He picked up the phone and called the only friend he could think of who ever read. “In my home there were never any books,” he says. “I never read in high school, just cheated through my exams.” His friend went to a bookstore and told the clerk he needed books for a friend who was “short and bossy.” The clerk picked out a biography of Napoleon, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and Mein Kampf.
With deadpan humor, Ferrante recounts that the books arrived just as a brutal murderer was telling all the inmates how he and a friend had killed the third party in a love triangle and hacked him into pieces… although they didn’t cut off the head: “Ugh! That would be disgusting!” said the killer, oblivious to his own absurd lack of logic. “My books couldn’t have come at a better time,” Ferrante thought to himself as he beat a hasty retreat into a corner with his new acquisitions.
He labored through all of them; he bought a dictionary from another inmate “for a stamp” and had to look up half the words on each page (except those beginning with Y and Z, since those pages were ripped out of the dictionary). He understood little, and comments dryly in his book, “Hitler used a lot of big words. I knew he was full of it because my lawyers used big words, and they were also full of it.”
Today, Ferrante recognizes that “Hashem really helped me. When I made the effort, it was like the manna would come down. For instance, when I finished reading War and Peace, I was just blown away. I couldn’t wait to read more Tolstoy. The next day, I found a copy of Anna Karenina in a broken urinal.”
His friend sent more books, and he learned the prison had a library. Reading was becoming an obsession; he sometimes read for eighteen hours a day. He no longer slept much, because he no longer needed sleep as an escape, he had found something better; he would stuff his ears with tissues to keep the roaches from crawling in and read until he nodded off.
“I could tune into things really well, because there’s nothing else going on in prison,” Ferrante recalls. “Today I can’t do that any more, only on Shabbos. I’ve read that the brain works best under moderate stress, and that was what I was living with in prison; in a funny way, those circumstances helped open my mind.” Before long, he was not only reading, but putting his thoughts onto paper as well. When his papers were confiscated during a prison shakedown, he began mailing chapters to his father, initiating a relationship they hadn’t had in years. He even organized classes within the prison
His first stirrings of conscience, perhaps his first true steps towards reform and teshuva, were aroused by a book. He had taken out a copy of Martin Gilbert’s Churchill from the prison library and liked it so much he thought he might just keep it, ripping out the card pocket in the back. But then, suddenly, he just didn’t want to do the wrong thing. He stuffed the back page back in and returned it to the librarian. “For the first time, I actually realized that stealing is wrong,” he says.
When Ferrante was transferred to Otisville, a medium-security prison, he befriended fellow inmate Richard Messina, a corporate attorney. Messina loved books, loved language, and he became Ferrante’s language coach, expanding his vocabulary and correcting his pronunciation. Ferrante eventually became educated enough to overturn an illegal verdict first for a semi-retarded inmate who had been given a bum rap (a victory that gave Ferrante tremendous nachas) and later overturn charges for himself, winning an early release after “only” eight years.
“Prison is designed to break the individual,” he eventually wrote. “It outright destroyed me, the old me. I was building someone better.”
FROM BOOKS TO THE PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
There was no shortage of religion in prison, Ferrante says. “I’d say ninety percent of the guys in prison get religion at some point,” he claims. “They become born-agains or Muslims. But it wasn’t real; if their parole didn’t come through, or something happened, they’d chuck the whole thing in an instant. I figured, if they’re going that way, I’m going the other way!”
He had many theological questions simmering in his mind, and in order to find answers began to read everything from the Gospels to the Koran to Confucius to Torah. “In the end, it all came down to one thing: there is one G-d,” he says. “All the other religions just seemed to be Johnny-come-latelies, copying the Torah.” And he had no use for religions with multiple deities and scores of saints: “Even on the street, I went straight to the Boss!” he jokes. He began reading about the Jewish people, the first to receive the Bible—“could G-d have picked the wrong horse?” he asked. “–Not very likely!”
He approached the prison rabbi and told him he wanted to learn more about Judaism. “He didn’t take me seriously, thought I just wanted to get extra treats or something,” Ferrante recounts. “So I told him, ‘I’m not interested in your bagels and rugelach! I want conversation!’” Finally recognizing his sincerity, the rabbi obliged.
“Once I was in Otisville [the medium-security prison], there were Jews,” Ferrante says. ”Some American, some European, a few Israelis, even a few Chasids. Some of them had background, put on tefillin. They would make a minyan. By 1998 I was keeping Shabbos, eating kosher and praying daily with an Artscroll siddur.” He asked an old friend to send kosher food, and was surprised to open a package filled with Italian pepperoni and sopressata as well as pickled herring and gefilte fish—it turned out that his friend had gone to the store and asked the clerk to give him food for a friend who was “halfa guinea, halfa Jew.”
“I even wrote a commentary on the Chumash, with the encouragement of the rabbi at the last prison in the Adirondacks,” he says. “It took me two years, my last two years in prison. I couldn’t do it now; I have too little time and too many distractions.”
As he read more about Jewish history, he felt himself strengthened by the examples of Jewish martyrs. When the prison guards tormented and degraded him, he would think of those who went through concentration camps, those who had never committed any crimes at all to deserve such brutality. He developed new mental reflexes in the face of prison degradation, a new ability to tell himself, “They can harm my body, but they can never have my mind.”
Without even having converted yet, he managed to make a kiddush Hashem. This occurred when he was transported from one prison to another with a guy named Slim, the child of junkies who grew up in brutal, abusive foster homes. Slim had no one on the outside to send him money, and when they stopped at a commissary Ferrante took pity on him and bought him some toiletries and ten-cent soups. A few days later, Slim saw Ferrante reading a Chumash on his bunk, wearing a yarmulke. “You’re a Jew?” he asked incredulously. “Yeah,” Ferrante replied, “I’m an Italian Jew.”
Slim looked perturbed, and shortly afterwards Ferrante found out he was an Aryan Nation leader—and shrewdly decided to keep his distance. Finally, a few weeks later, Slim slunk over to his bunk and made him the gift of a few music tapes someone had left behind. “My brother’s an Aryan too,” he told Ferrante. “I wrote him a letter, told him the only guy who ever helped me in my life is a Jew.” He showed Ferrante the swastika tattooed on his chest and said, “The ink guy is coming next week, and I’m having him cover this up.” Ferrante comments: “The power of a good deed. . . a ten-cent soup can change someone’s opinion of an entire race.”
By the time he was released from prison, Ferrante’s father had remarried with, of all things, a Jewish woman from Long Island. Through his new stepmother, Ferrante met a Conservative rabbi, Arthur Rulnick. Rulnick and Ferrante hit it off and spent hours upon hours in conversation together. “I adore him,” Ferrante says. Rulnick’s adult children, according to Ferrante, have all become frum and are also close friends.
Because of his attachment to Rulnick, Ferrante chose to go through conversion procedures with him at his Conservative synagogue, selecting the name Moshe ben Avraham. “Moshe was always my hero,” he told me, “the one who received the Torah directly from Hashem.”
Of course, anyone coming from the Orthodox point of view does not accept such a conversion as complete. “You know,” I feel compelled to explain gently to Ferrante, “A Conservative conversion is not acceptable in all circles; in Israel, and in all Orthodox circles, only an Orthodox conversion has any legitimacy.”
“Oh, I know!” he answers promptly. “I’m aware of that, and I plan to do an Orthodox conversion! As it is I would call my level of observance either ultra-Conservative or modern Orthodox. I dream of living in Israel one day, and eventually being buried there.
“In fact, I have already called an Orthodox rabbi. You have to understand—I want to be more Jewish. And for me, believe me, it won’t be hard after everything I’ve been through to get so far!”
I must admit I find him convincing. In Pirke Avot, it says a person who keeps the Torah in poverty will keep it in wealth. Louis Ferrante began struggling to keep the Torah alone in a prison cell, with next to no support, and next to no reason to do it except that everything he read and understood whispered to him that this was the truth. If you can start davening and eating kosher and keeping Shabbos in prison, with rats and cockroaches as your only companions, chances are pretty good you’ll be able to keep it when you get outside into a place with shuls and Jewish bookstores and rabbis to help out.
When Ferrante completed his “conversion” with Arthur Rulnick, he decided he wished to purchase a pair of tefillin. Rulnick gave him the address of a bookstore in College Point, Queens. He drove over, got out of his car, and stopped dead in his tracks.
“I realized,” he says, “that I was less than a block away from where I had hijacked a truck over a decade ago. The hijacking site and the Hebrew book store were in my same field of vision. Who would have thought I would have traveled so long and far to return to this same spot, a completely different person?”
“I was blown away. . . I felt like G-d led me to this spot, to show me my entire journey in the space of a breath.”
From the point of view of an Orthodox person, Ferrante is still a work in progress. Living in his home in the Catskills, he is still far from a shul, and spends Shabbos on his own or with a friend. “I got used to doing Shabbos on my own in prison,” he shrugs when I suggest that Shabbos, and indeed all Jewish life, is really designed to be lived in a community setting. “Maybe when I’m married and have children, I’ll need to be closer to a shul and to schools,” he admits. “For now, this is good for writing.” I tell him that a Jewish writer (Varda Branfman) once described the transition to Orthodox life as akin to “interplanetary travel,” and while I am sure he understands this on the level of a person who transformed from a Mafia thug to a Conservative Jewish intellectual, I am not sure if he yet understands the sort of changes in values and attitudes that have yet to be made in the shift from Conservative to Orthodox; in many cases, the change is less a matter of just doing more than of changing one’s entire worldview.
But if anybody can do it, Louis Ferrante can. With an Orthodox conversion in the works, a promising literary career now getting off the ground, and plans to one day move to Israel, Louis Ferrante’s long journey may still have many, many miles left to go. And what a lovely thing that will be for him—after all, we all know that travelers who accrue the most miles garner the most bonus points—and a lovely thing for us as well, as we can only look forward to his future contributions to the Jewish community.
Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She recently celebrated the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.