He was a New York gangster, a “goodfella” who spent his life dodging the law. But Louis Ferrante — aka Big Lou — is pleased he wound up in a maximum security prison.
Because that is how he found Judaism.
The 39-year-old Italian-American, whose thick accent irresistibly brings to mind Tony Soprano, was a member of the Gambino organisation, working for one of America’s most ruthless crime families. He was heavily involved in racketeering and fraud, activities that from time to time required brutal violence.
But after eight-and-a half years in jail, he swapped meatballs for matzo balls and nowadays would rather keep what he calls “the Shabbos” than the Mafia code.
Growing up in Flushing, an area of the New York borough of Queens, Ferrante says he did not have much of a home life — his mother died of cancer when he was 19. He paid little attention in school, preferring to pay others to do his assignments. Instead, he turned to the streets and became involved in petty crime, hijacking lorries and selling stolen goods.
“I got in with the Gambino family,” says Ferrante, who is in London ahead of a speaking engagement for Young Magen David Adom. “That led to my career aspiration to be a criminal. In the beginning, I went on the jobs myself. Eventually, I headed up my own crew of hijackers and delegated the jobs. I answered to the heads of my family. The streets were my life. The older criminals I associated with became my fathers.”
While Ferrante never actually murdered anyone, he admits to having at times resorted to extreme violence. “I made a lot of money, I lived a fast life,” he says.
“I have never killed anybody… but just shy of that. It’s part of that life. It’s a violent world. It doesn’t just rely on threats. If somebody doesn’t respond to a threat, you have to follow through.”
Eventually he was caught out. “Informants brought down the house of cards,” he says. “The police were given information and with that they pieced together a case. They served me with three indictments.
But he has no quarrel with the law. “I deserved to be in prison — either that or a nut house,” he confesses. “For sure, I was guilty. In the very back of your mind you think you’re smarter [than the police] so you don’t think they’re going to get you.” Ferrante was offered the chance of a more lenient sentence if he “ratted” on his fellow Mafiosi. He chose to keep silent and, as a result, faced a possible life term in jail. But, in the event, he got away with only a 13 year sentence because he pleaded guilty.
“The twisted Mafia code was the code I followed — a kind of honour amongst thieves,” he explains. “I decided not to tell on the Mafia at any point. But you can’t reconcile the two. Their code only serves to further their own evil empire. They won’t go with your wife, but if you cross them, they will kill you in front of your wife. I don’t have any respect for it any more.”
So at the age of 25, Ferrante was thrown into the maximum security Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, and the harsh reality of life in jail hit home. “Prison is a horrible place,” he says. “It’s an everyday horror show. My very first day in jail there was a double suicide. The [white supremacist group] Aryan Nation was at war with the Black Muslims. They hacked to death two Muslims. There were a lot of cuttings, stabbings and suicides.”
Ferrante began reading to help pass the time and stay out of trouble. He would read history and philosophy books late into the night, and get up at 5am to start reading again.
“I was fortunate because I loved it,” he says. “It was a way to make a day go by quickly. In jail a day drags. It’s slow and monotonous. Reading made it feel like the time was going quicker.”
He started to read religious books, beginning with the New Testament and then the Koran. And then he picked up the Old Testament.
“I started with Catholicism because that was my own background,” he says.
“I read the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I thought those were interesting. I read the Koran.
“I eventually read the Old Testament, the Torah. I don’t know if it’s inherent in my nature or from my upbringing, but I believe in one God and monotheistic religions had a certain hold on me.”
Ferrante’s explanation for picking Judaism is that historically, the religion came before Islam and Christianity. “The Jews came first and had the Torah,” he says. “Everyone’s taking the Torah, giving credence to it but, in the same breath, saying the Jews are wrong. Why do we have to change it?
“I went to the prison chaplain and he said: ‘Sometimes we pray to a statue or a cross because people don’t understand that God is present everywhere.’
“I said: ‘Do we bend the Book to meet the people?’ He didn’t have an answer to that. We’re breaking one of the Ten Commandments by having statues. God says he can’t be represented. I think I was fortunate to understand Judaism and to me that is the only religion.”
During his time inside, Ferrante went from a Mafia thug to a scholarly Jew. He was released from jail after serving eight years, having successfully appealed against his conviction when he represented himself at the appeal hearing.
On release, he converted to Judaism under the guidance of a Conservative rabbi — the US equivalent of a Masorti minister. He says that he now observes Shabbat, davens regularly, lays tefillin and keeps kosher.
He lives in the Catskill Mountains in New York state with his fiancée, Gabriella, who has also converted to Judaism. “I tried to meet an Orthodox girl but what good Orthodox girl is going to go with me? With three felonies and eight years in jail?” he jokes.
“After that long in jail you’re longing for a woman. I was trying to hold out and find an Orthodox girl, but just let me start dating, for crying out loud!”
He says his family were open-minded about his conversion. “My father looked at my nose and told me: ‘You look like a Jew!’,” he laughs.
He also began writing in jail and has penned a memoir about his experience inside called Tough Guy, which has been optioned for a movie after Sopranos star Lorraine Bracco bought the rights. “That is when I began to watch The Sopranos,” says Ferrante who insists he never watched Mafia films like The Godfather or Goodfellas when he was growing up.
Having seen them now, he agrees they are fairly accurate depictions of Mafia life. “I could see young kids watching movies or TV shows like that and being drawn to that because they think it’s glamorous,” he says.
“I actually wrote my book in a way that does not glamorise prison. I do draw you in with a portrait of the street. I like to keep it entertaining, but not in a way that glorifies it.”
But perhaps his book is a good advert for prison. After all, it served him well. “I wouldn’t say this to the youths I speak to, but to adults and between you and me, going to prison was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he admits. “I went in an atheist and came back a writer and a Jew.”