How a South Bronx gang leader found Judaism
On a sodden Sunday, I sneak into an abandoned building in the Bronx with Benjy Melendez, a tall mustachioed man and founder of the Ghetto Brothers, a rough street gang that helped give the borough its violent reputation in the late 1960s. We enter through a door whose bolt has already been broken. Once a thriving synagogue and Jewish community center known as Intervale, the building is now in ruins, its front covered in graffiti and obscured by scaffolding. Above the main entrance, Beit Knesset Anshei Minsk D’Bronx, the Synagogue of People from Minsk in the Bronx, is etched in Hebrew letters. Right inside there is a blue wooden chair. “This was the rabbi’s chair,” Melendez says. “He used to sit outside.” We venture downstairs, past the peeling paint and into the sanctuary, wet thanks to a ceiling full of holes. Rain drips on our heads, the floor is soft underfoot, and the entire place reeks of urine and rat droppings.
Melendez spies a small wooden ark on a table and wrenches a pair of carved tablets, lettered aleph through yud, or one through 10, and representing the Ten Commandments, from the top.
The relic Melendez carries out is emblematic of his beliefs and practice. He is a Spanish Jew who adheres fervently and almost exclusively to the Written Law, or what is written in the Hebrew Bible and not in the Talmud or other Jewish commentary. Like his father, Melendez reads to his children from the Bible every Friday night. When I note that one of the legacies of the Spanish Jewry from which he descends are sages like Maimonides and Joseph Caro, who added important works to the Oral Tradition, he says “I don’t want to adhere to the rabbis’ way.” The same independent spirit that led him to start his own gang now informs his present religious observances.
Melendez has gone his own way—from gang leader to religiosity. His journey resonates with me; it is the opposite of mine. I was raised in an insular Orthodox community in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, but my religious practice has become much more subtle and flexible as I’ve plunged into the worlds of underground hip-hop and breakdancing, both rooted in the gang scene of which Melendez was once a fixture. For him, though, Judaism now takes center stage, though the path from young man in the brutal South Bronx to adult in a tallit was hardly an obvious one.
Part of that path leads us to an alley behind a school, the site of the so-called Junkie Massacre of 1971, when gang members attacked junkies that crossed their paths and locked others up in rooms to try to force them to detox. Years later, Melendez would become certified as a counselor, employing more peaceable tactics to help men and women stay clean. In Flyin’ Cut Sleeves, a 1993 documentary by Henry Chalfant about the gangs that ruled the South Bronx in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the thuggish methods gang members used are on vivid display in the archival footage. Their turf was in the center of the burned-out South Bronx, right near Crotona Park, and the gang had more than a thousand members. It was a time when it seemed like virtually every Bronx resident had some sort of gang tie. There were 100 gangs to choose from in the borough, boasting 11,000 members.
But while Melendez ran his posse, he was also discovering that his family was descended from conversos, or crypto-Jews. His father’s family came to the United States from northern Spain, with a one-generation stopover in Puerto Rico, where Benjy was born in 1952, and continued to practice their religion in the tradition of crypto-Jews when they settled near the Cross Bronx Expressway in 1962.
“ ‘Be quiet!’ Those were the main words in the house,” Benjy tells me over coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts, quoting his father when the son asked too many questions about household traditions. “My parents suffered from Spanish Inquisition Syndrome,” Melendez says, likening it to a kind of PTSD passed down through the generations for 500 years. He wears a Yankees hat instead of the knitted yarmulke he wears in the documentary. Though Melendez now lives in Harlem with his second wife, he returns to the South Bronx daily to work at a local food pantry, which is how he supports himself, his wife, three children, and his one grandchild.
Nearby Melendez points down the street to where Felipe “Blackie” Mercado of the rival Savage Skulls now lives. Melendez’s own name on the street had been “Yellow Benjy,” because he had dated, and later married, a Chinese woman. He still uses the nickname, at least on his cellphone voicemail.
But Melendez was also half-mockingly called “the Preacher,” for his fiery scripture-based sermons. He still speaks with passion, frequently banging the table during our conversation, drawing attention from other patrons. It is easy to see how the teenage Melendez attracted a following when he formed the Ghetto Brothers with his biological brothers—Victor, Ulpiano, and Robert (he also has three sisters)—and other neighborhood friends, after having grown bored of being in other gangs, like the Confon Cats. The Ghetto Brothers recruited a friend, Charlie “Karate Charlie” Suarez, who was a martial arts expert, to be president. Melendez and Suarez did a good cop/bad cop routine. In Jeff Chang’s comprehensive history about the rise of hip-hop culture, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Suarez remembers, “Benjy was my Yin and I was the Yang. … I was the one that grabbed them by the throat and administered punishment. Benjy was the one that intervened.” The tactic was good for Melendez; except for one arrest for smashing street lights, he had no police record.
At home, Melendez’s father was the preacher. He collected his children Friday evenings at sundown and drew the living room shades before reading to them from the Torah, wrapping himself in a white sheet, and praying silently. Melendez’s mother also worshipped in private, secluding herself in the bedroom to light Sabbath candles. Both parents addressed the practices of the other in the same fashion.
Your mother has a strange religion, his father would say.
You father has a strange religion, his mother would say.
Melendez heeded his father’s warning not to speak of their secret rituals. Then, when he was still a teenager in 1967, Melendez found a copy of Cecil Roth’s A History of the Marranos in the library. There he finally found an explanation for the unexplained Friday night rites.
Melendez, then 17, was now certain of his Jewish origins but had just started the Ghetto Brothers. He was consumed with managing disputes between members and turf wars with other groups—and with playing music in a band by the same name. As children, Melendez and his brothers had won a contest singing Beatles tunes for Tito Puente, and the Ghetto Brothers’ band played Latin-infused rock at house parties. (They released an eight-song album, Ghetto Brothers Power Fuerza, around 1971.)
Around then, Melendez met Rita Fecher, one of his sister’s teachers. She saw the promise in the teen gang leaders. They were intelligent, articulate, and motivated. They helmed large organizations and maintained order on their streets—that is, when they weren’t causing the chaos. Realizing that no one would hear their stories, she documented the kids’ lives with her Super-8 camera.
Though Melendez kept his vow not to talk of his family’s religious habits, his curiosity got the better of him. “I kept asking Rita all these questions about Judaism, and at first she thought I was an anti-Semite,” Melendez recalls. Fecher had some reason to fear anti-Jewish attitudes amongst the teen warlords. Many of the gangs decorated their jackets with swastikas, but Melendez forbade the Ghetto Brothers from putting Nazi insignia on their colors. “We’re supposed to be outlaws. We’re supposed to look mean,” his “brothers” pleaded. Melendez refused, never explaining his reasoning. It was only when Rita contacted him about shooting additional material for the documentary in 1989 that he told her about his family history.
When Fecher first met Melendez, the Ghetto Brothers were in flux, shifting away from violence by helping neighborhood children with their homework, fixing people’s cars, and cleaning out abandoned buildings. This change was mostly due to Melendez’s influence and his increasing association with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. The Ghetto Brothers agitated for better health care at Lincoln Hospital, less abusive policing, and more job opportunities. But the gang is perhaps best remembered for the peace conference it organized after one of their own, Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin, was murdered in 1971 at 25 by three rival gangs while trying to mediate a dispute.
When news of the death spread through the South Bronx, people braced themselves for unprecedented violence. Melendez insisted on pursuing peace rather than vengeance since that was what Black Benjie died trying to achieve.
“All the gangs are waiting for one word: ‘Fire,’ but I’m not going to say it because that won’t bring Benjie back,” Melendez said to the press in front of the Ghetto Brothers’ clubhouse. “I notice you reporters look disappointed because you didn’t want to hear that, right? You wanted to hear about these South Bronx savages. But I’m not going to give you the pleasure.”
On December 8, 1971, more than two dozen rival gangs gathered at a Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx for a peace summit. With social workers, teachers, and undercover police officers watching, the teens aired their grievances nonviolently. In Fecher’s footage, Melendez, with his longish hair wild and in a faded green military jacket with a patch of the Puerto Rican flag sewn onto the left sleeve, stood up. “The thing is we’re not a gang anymore. We want to help black and Puerto Ricans live in a better environment,” Melendez says. All the gang leaders signed a treaty renouncing violence, though Benjy later acknowledged that it was theater for the television crews. The real terms of the truce were hashed out in private with beers, spliffs, and girls at the Ghetto Brothers’ clubhouse.
The agreement marked the beginning of the end of gang dominance over the South Bronx. With the semblance of peace on its way, Melendez then had time to explore Judaism more seriously. In 1976, Melendez, then 24 years old, entered the Intervale Jewish Center and introduced himself as a Spanish Jew to the rabbi, Moishe Sacks. Sacks showed Melendez how to wrap himself in a tallit, as he had seen his father do with a bed sheet. Until Sacks’ death in 1995, Melendez attended services regularly at Intervale, bringing along his children.
Given his attachment to Judaism, I ask Melendez if he has ever considered a formal conversion, since the ancestry of crypto-Jews is often dubious. He bristles. “I am Jewish in my heart!” he says, raising his arms heavenward.
A couple of hours later, Melendez walks me to the subway. As we wait for a train, he asks me about Israel. “Is it scary?” He has never been. “All I see on the news are Palestinians attacking Israelis.” This is not the first time he brings the topic up.
“Well,” I hedge before settling on an analogy I knew he’d understand. “I guess it’s like it was back in the gang days in the South Bronx. Everyone saw you guys as thugs, never for a second considering the social context—the dilapidated housing, the bad schools, the poverty. I’m not saying the situation in Israel is exactly like that, but there are legitimate grievances on both sides.”
“I didn’t realize it was like that,” he answers.