(New York Jewish Week) — In the late 1960s, the Bronx was at war. Rival gangs were fighting over territory in neighborhoods that had been devastated by drugs, poverty and the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway.
Benjamin “Yellow Benjy” Melendez was the son of Puerto Rican Jewish immigrants and the leader of a multicultural gang called the Ghetto Brothers that promoted peace. After his comrade Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin was beaten to death in 1971 while trying to break up a fight, Melendez brokered a truce among 50 gangs that led to safer streets, a flourishing of public art and, ultimately, the birth of hip-hop.
Julian Voloj, an occasional Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributor who is married to New York Jewish Week managing editor Lisa Keys, published a graphic novel about Melendez in 2015. Now he has co-written and co-produced a five-part podcast about the Ghetto Brothers that debuted on Audible last month in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.
“Can You Dig It?” includes interviews with former gang members and historians, dramatic reenactments of key moments in the Ghetto Brothers’ history and recordings of Melendez, who died in 2017. Chuck D of the legendary rap group Public Enemy narrates the series, and Coke La Rock — who rapped at what is considered to be the first hip-hop party, on Aug. 11, 1973 — spits a few bars and shares some memories.
Melendez’s ancestors were crypto-Jews from Spain who practiced Judaism in secret to avoid persecution during the Inquisition and afterward. Likewise, he kept his faith under wraps during his gang years. While he forbade members of the Ghetto Brothers from wearing swastikas to appear tough, he never explained why the symbol offended him. Later in life, he embraced his Jewish roots and prayed at the Bronx’s Intervale Jewish Center.
Voloj, who lives in Queens, spoke with the New York Jewish Week this week about hip-hop history and how Melendez’s Jewishness has inspired his own projects on the genre.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
JTA: When did you first hear about Benjamin Melendez?
JV: I started a photo series on Jewish diversity in 2005, and I always was looking for interesting characters to photograph. Someone recommended Yellow Benjy. He got his nickname because the mother of his first two kids was Chinese, and there were a lot of other Benjamins in the neighborhood. So I called him up and we met up in the Bronx in 2010 at the stairs where Cornell Benjamin was murdered.
That first meeting was really meant to be just one photograph, but he had this fascinating story and we hit it off. I guess it had to do with my own Latinx, Jewish identity — my parents are Colombian — so we really had a lot in common. When Yellow Benjy died, my kids thought that he was a real relative because they had seen him so many times. He was Uncle Benjy to them.
At its heart, “Can You Dig It?” is a story about gangs of disenfranchised youth fighting over turf. What’s the connection between gangs and hip-hop?
Every culture is part of a certain environment in which it was created. The realities of the 1970s Bronx, there were no youth activities, so the gangs in a way filled this void. Obviously “gang” is a term that’s not one size fits all.
After the Hoe Avenue peace meeting, the Ghetto Brothers invited other gangs into their territory for street parties. There is a direct connection to the early hip-hop parties. The philosophy of early hip-hop was about peace, love, unity and having fun. Only later on did you have gangsta rap with its glorification of violence.
Scholar Joe Schloss says on the podcast that people were always surprised to learn Melendez was Jewish and calls him “a perfect example of what it means to be Jewish in the world in a way that was very different from sort of stereotypical notions of what Jewish is.” Do you agree?
It was one of my main motivations to tell Yellow Benjy’s story in the graphic novel “Ghetto Brother.” He was a proud Puerto Rican Sephardic Jew, and it was a story that was missing from the overall canon on Jewish identity. It was also important that his children have Jewish names, and so his kids have names like Judah, Zipporah, Sarah, Rebecca, Joshua. And with them, his legacy lives on.
Several Jewish personalities are mentioned in the podcast. Can you share a little bit about them?
You have all different aspects of Jewish identity in the story. There’s Benjamin Melendez, who’s a Puerto Rican crypto-Jew. Then you have Robert Moses who comes from a German-Jewish family. The Cross Bronx Expressway is the legacy that he’s most associated with, which really accelerated urban decay and white flight.
Then you have Rita Fecher, whose father was a rabbi. She grew up Orthodox, then divorced her husband and lived as a single mom in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Fecher was an art teacher at a school in the South Bronx, and she was such a positive influence on all these kids who had never met any Jews. She really cared about them. She allowed them to find their own voice and helped them to think about art. She’s the kind of teacher you wish would exist more.
And she co-produced with Henry Chalafant the 1993 documentary about gang life titled “Flyin’ Cut Sleeves.” How did that come about?
She brought a video camera to the Bronx in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and she gave the kids the camera to document their own lives, which was unheard of. Over a decade later, she tried to track down her former students and see where they ended up. That’s really the powerful thing: you see these angry kids who feel left behind and then you see that everything somehow worked out.
For me, the fascinating part of “Flyin’ Cut Sleeves” is you see Yellow Benjy at the Intervale Jewish Center, the last synagogue of the South Bronx. He goes to services and he’s with Moishe Sacks, who was the rabbi there.
Each episode of “Can You Dig It?” ends with a song by the Ghetto Brothers band, which was fronted by Melendez. Did he rap too?
He really didn’t like hip-hop. It wasn’t his music. He was more of a Beatles fan. He liked Santana.
Although he wasn’t a hip-hop artist, he has a direct connection to the hip-hop troika of [DJ Kool] Herc, Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. Like Herc, he was once a member of the Cofon Cats [gang]. He was friends with Afrika Bambaataa, who may or may not have participated in the Hoe Avenue peace meeting. Grandmaster Flash, who is slightly younger, knew about the Ghetto Brothers growing up and mentions them in his autobiography.
Who is this podcast for?
Anybody who’s interested in nonfiction audio storytelling. Anybody who’s interested in the history of New York. The bookends of every episode are scripted reenactments, like they use in film documentaries. They really allow listeners to dive in and experience the Bronx in the 1970s.
For the hip-hop community, it allows people to discover a different origin story. You can argue over whether hip-hop is really 50 or not because there are so many origin stories. This is one of them.
A queer Israeli textile artist’s Lavender Diaspora sukkah explores identity in Brooklyn
The sukkah, created by queer textile artist Hilla Shapira, was unharmed: Its light purple walls were made of ripstop, a lightweight and water-resistant fabric. Its soft and pillowy decorations — which included Jewish symbols like hamsas as well as depictions of the four species — were made of dacron, a durable, polyester batting that held up in the deluge as well.
Shapira said the project — titled Lavender Diaspora — was meant to channel her identities as a queer person who grew up in a religious household in Israel, and also as an immigrant in the United States, where she studied art in Michigan before moving to Brooklyn.
“I try to find parallel relationships between what it is to be queer and Jewish, and to be a person from Israel,” Shapira, 33, told the New York Jewish Week. “It’s especially relevant when we’re talking about Sukkot, which is a holiday that the Jewish people were celebrating in the in-between space, between Egypt and Israel — they were on the way somewhere, but in something that is temporary and stuck in this kind of forever nomadism.”
Speaking at a Shabbat dinner hosted by The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life, the Brooklyn-based organization that commissioned the sukkah, Shapira said she had designed her structure to celebrate communities that find themselves on the outskirts of society.
She was speaking on the first night of Sukkot, the weeklong holiday in which Jews build a temporary structure called a sukkah, meant to commemorate in part the structures that the Israelites lived in as they wandered through the desert from Egypt to Israel. Throughout the holiday, which ends at sundown on Saturday, Jews eat, pray and even sleep in the sukkah.
The Neighborhood has partnered with 12 other Jewish communities and organizations to celebrate and host events in the unique sukkah, including Romemu Brooklyn, Lab/Shul, Jews of Color Initiative and the Prospect Heights Shul.
“We were really excited to think about not just a sukkah as an art object, but really also as a place to bring different communities and groups of people together in this temporary structure,” Rebecca Guber, the founding director of The Neighborhood, told the New York Jewish Week.
“We also thought about what were some different perspectives that we could bring into this stuff,” she added. “We wanted something that brings in young families, that would be comfortable if you’re a more observant Jew and that also feels kind of wild.”
Located in the courtyard of Luria Academy, a Jewish day school in Prospect Heights, students will use the sukkah for their meals and programming during the day. In the evenings and on the weekend, The Neighborhood will use the sukkah for its own programming, which includes the launch of a Sukkot zine in partnership with Ayin Press, a family-friendly music jam, a dance event and more.
As a queer woman who grew up in an Orthodox home in Israel — as well as an immigrant to the United States — Shapira said she’s often searched for a sense of belonging. “The sukkah I tried to create is a space that is offering an alternative, or making a suggestion for a communal space for all the ‘shoulders’ of society,” she said.
Lavender, the color of the walls of the sukkah, is a symbol of LGBTQ resistance and activism. The other half of the title, Diaspora, refers to both the dispersion of the Jewish people as well as the feeling of marginalization experienced by Jews, LBGTQ people and other minorities — the sukkah is meant to be a temporary space that alleviates that feeling.
The Neighborhood is a community hub that primarily partners with other Jewish organizations to create innovative Jewish cultural and spiritual events for Jewish life. The Lavender Diaspora sukkah was funded by UJA-Federation New York. (UJA-Federation is also a funder of 70 Faces Media, the parent company of the New York Jewish Week.)
“What really resonates for us is the way that this sukkah welcomes everyone in — whatever position you feel you occupy in the Jewish community — maybe some people feel like insiders, other feel like outsiders, we really hope this can be a place where many different people can feel welcomed, and that their perspectives and identities are being honored,” Guber said.
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Displaced by ethnic violence, India’s Bnei Menashe Jews construct sukkahs nonetheless
(JTA) — The temporary shelters that Jews erect during the holiday of Sukkot are meant in part to recall a time when Jews had nowhere permanent to live. In Northeast India, that symbolism is heavy with additional meaning this year.
That’s because large numbers of Bnei Menashe, the Jewish community that lives there, have fled their homes in the state of Manipur since ethnic unrest broke out in early May.
According to the Israeli organization Shavei Israel, about 2,000 people from the Jewish community have been displaced. A different nonprofit that works with the community, Degel Menashe, cites a smaller number, 700.
But either way, the community has been ravaged, with three locations that have been home to large numbers of Bnei Menashe decimated in the violence. Synagogues and homes have burned to the ground, and the number of displaced people has only grown with time.
Now, as the conflict enters its sixth month, what many believed would be temporary displacements in the Manipur hills or the neighboring state of Mizoram are becoming permanent.
“Despite these challenging times for the Bnei Menashe and even in the farthest reaches of northeastern India, they have continued to uphold the ancient tradition of building Sukkot in honor of the festival,” said Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, which helps “lost tribe” communities return to Israel.
Shavei Israel distributed pictures showing members of the community constructing sukkahs out of bamboo. Their efforts come as their own safety in their areas where they live is in question — or already compromised.
“[For] the Bnei Menashe and the rest of the people who have left Imphal, I don’t think there is any chance of them returning back because there is no security,” said Isaac Thangjom, the Israel-based director of Degel Menashe, which assists Bnei Menashe communities in Israel and India, referring to Manipur’s capital city. “If you ask me honestly, the separation is complete.”
The Bnei Menashe identify as descendants of a “lost tribe” group, tracing their origins to the Israelite tribe of Menasseh. In 2005, a chief rabbi of Israel affirmed their identity as a “lost tribe” group with historic Jewish ties, but researchers have not found sufficient evidence to back the claim. Bnei Menashe Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 1990s, and because of their “lost tribe” status, they all undergo formal Orthodox conversions upon arrival. Around 5,000 remain in the states of Manipur and Mizoram today, and about 5,000 have already immigrated to Israel.
Many have struggled to gain entry into Israel over the past two decades, and they are now asking the Jewish state to expedite the immigration process to help them escape the violence.
Israeli authorities have yet to comment publicly about the situation and did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Israel has recently been seeking to advance its relations with India.
Conflict erupted in May when tribal groups in Manipur launched a protest against the ethnic majority Meitei’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which is traditionally reserved for minority tribes. The Bnei Menashe Jews belong to the minority Kuki tribe.
The Kukis (about 16% of the population and majority Christian) say the Meiteis (53% and majority Hindu) already have outsized privilege and political representation in Manipur.
According to local reports, unofficial “but very real” borders have been drawn between what have become Kuki and Meitei areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for failing to control the situation. In August, opposition lawmakers called for a no-confidence vote over Modi’s handling of the situation, but it was easily defeated.
Some 190 people have died in the conflict since May, according to local media, including at least one Bnei Menashe community member. Over 60,000 are displaced.
Several other Bnei Menashe Jews are hospitalized with injuries, according to Shavei Israel.
In the face of displacement, the Bnei Menashe Jews have remained religiously observant, even as some fled with nothing more than their prayer books and the clothes on their backs, a Mizoram Jewish community member told JTA in June.
“It was so sudden,” said Ariella Haokip, a Bnei Menashe community member taking shelter in Thingdawl, Mizoram. “Funds were sent to us to buy special items for Rosh Hashanah and now for Sukkot. In spite of our misery, it is comforting to think that we are remembered.”
Some are currently staying at government shelters, others at schools and homes of other community members, or rented homes paid for by nonprofit groups. In Thingdawl, Mizoram, one young member has begun organizing Hebrew classes for displaced members, said Thangjom.
Both Shavei Israel and Degel Menashe have been working since May to provide continued support to the Bnei Menashe Jews through donations of food, mattresses, mosquito nets, infant formula, medicines and other necessities. Both organizations have arranged shelters for displaced families. Additional financial support has poured in from Jewish and Christian organizations in the United States and Israel.
For some, the High Holiday season also represents a new beginning, as Degel Menashe races to construct homes for several Bnei Menashe families. Lalam Hangshing, chairman of the Bnei Menashe Council-India, donated a piece of land of about 200 acres in Churachandpur on which nine homes are being constructed.
“It was hoped that it could be ready by Rosh Hashanah but there were some unforeseen delays and challenges,” said Thangjom. “Each family will be allotted a piece of land to grow or raise something of their choice so that it can be a source of livelihood for them.”
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Alice Shalvi pioneered religious feminism in Israel. Everyone else is still catching up.
(JTA) — I first met Alice Shalvi, the mother of religious feminism in Israel, in the mid-1990s during a meeting of ICAR, the International Coalition of Agunah Rights, a coalition that she founded to advocate for women denied a religious divorce by their husbands. She was in her early 70s at the time, and had been fighting for agunah rights for 20 years.
I was in my mid-20s, and new to the cause. I was there as co-chair of Mavoi Satum, which a group of us founded in 1995. This coalition was meant to be advancing systemic solutions to this awful problem. But, of course, we were stuck. As stuck then as we are now.
At one point in the meeting, Professor Shalvi started to cry. “I am 72 years old. I have been talking about this for so long,” she said, “and nothing is changing.” She was crying because the suffering of women didn’t seem to matter to our people. Then she turned to me and said, “It’s up to you and your generation to fix this.”
At the time, I felt her passing the mantle, and I didn’t want to let her down. But I’m sure I did. At least on this front. On others, too, despite our best efforts.
Shalvi, who died Monday morning in Israel at age 96, fought crucial fights decades before the rest of the world caught up with her, before the religious community had any kind of language for what she was doing, before there was any kind of feminist movement to speak of in Israel.
She pioneered feminist ideas in Israel in the early 1970s when there were only a handful of women doing such work — Marcia Freedman, Naomi Chazan and a few others. And she was the only one coming from the religious world, and able to see the need and potential for change before everyone else.
Starting in 1975, Shalvi began running the Pelech School for Haredi Girls, a religious feminist school, before Orthodox feminism existed as a movement — before Women of the Wall, before women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, years before Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Kolech, Israel’s Religious Women’s Forum, existed, before anyone even dared to put the words “feminist” and “religious” together in a sentence. Before even the Conservative movement had women rabbis. Everyone else is still catching up.
She also worked in the non-religious arena, creating, in 1984, the first feminist lobby in Israel, the Israel Women’s Network, which still pioneers on many fronts.
She also dared to work on issues of peace, taking positions that were considered pas nisht, or “unsuitable,” in the religious world — and for the most part still are. She dared to see Palestinians, especially Palestinian women, as equal human beings. This was not a position that religious Israelis, or Israelis in general, were comfortable with. It’s still an uphill battle. She spoke and acted from a place of humanity first.
And she could remarkably work on a multitude of fronts, all at once, including education, academia, advocacy, politics and peace.
Alice Hildegard Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, on Oct. 16, 1926. She, her mother and brother joined their father in London in 1934, and she later earned degrees in literature and social work. She immigrated to Israel in 1949, taught at Hebrew University and led efforts to create an English department at Ben-Gurion University. Denied the deanship because she was a woman, she mobilized female faculty members in protest.
Professor Shalvi was my formal mentor when I was on the Jerusalem Fellows, a program in Jewish education. We would meet regularly and talk about feminism, politics, religion and Israel. It was a privilege to spend those hours in one-on-one conversations. Prof. Shalvi always talked to me with complete honesty, passion and belief in what she was working for. She entrusted me with her vision, and made me feel like she believed that I would hold it for her and continue to birth it in the world.
By the time changes started to take place in Orthodoxy for women — evidenced by Shira Hadasha, a Jerusalem congregation dedicated to halachah (Jewish law) and feminism, and Orthodox women in clergy roles — she had already moved on to the Conservative movement, serving as rector of what is now the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a graduate school and seminary associated with the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. She needed to go where her vision was valued and welcomed and celebrated, instead of where everything was a fight. She was highly criticized for that decision and was treated by some as a sort of traitor to the Orthodox feminist cause. But she deserved to be in a place that supported her and brought her comfort and respect, and she had earned that right.
She offered words of support for me when I took a similar leap and enrolled in Reform rabbinical school. Even though I am no longer in rabbinical school and do not associate with the Reform movement in any meaningful way, I do not regret the decision to step away from an Orthodox version of feminism and try on other hats. She inspired me and so many others to take leaps, be courageous, live from the heart and ignore the haters.
I am so glad that she found her well-deserved place in the world, and that she received many well-deserved honors and accolades along the way, including, in 1991, the Ministry of Education’s Education Prize in 1991 for teaching Talmud to girls and insisting that Pelech alumnae serve in either the IDF or the National Service. In 2007, she won the Israel Prize for her life’s work, and in 2019 a National Jewish Book Award for her memoir, “Never a Native.”
She left an incredible legacy of activism that has birthed generations of change agents in Israel.
I have often thought over the years that I wanted to be Alice Shalvi when I grew up. I loved her unstoppable courage, her ability to wear many hats, her resilience in standing up to the haters and naysayers, and her constant belief that she could make a difference. I’ve tried to follow that kind of path, though I have not had nearly the kind of strength and fortitude — and successes — that she had. But her personality and vision continue to have a permanent resting place in my heart. And I will continue to endeavor to carry her torch in this world.
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