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How a South Bronx Gang Leader
By Dvora Meyers
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.
originally appeared on Tabletmag.com. To
read the rest, please visit Tablet Magazine.