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‘Can You Dig It?’: New podcast traces how a Puerto Rican-Jewish gang leader helped create hip-hop in the Bronx

(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.

RELATED: From Rick Rubin to Doja Cat, Jews have helped shape the first 50 years of hip-hop

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. 

Benjamin Melendez in 2010. (Julian Voloj)

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.

From left: Pete Chelala, Angelique Lenox, Julian Voloj and Bryan Master at the Cornell Benjamin street renaming ceremony in the Bronx, June 2, 2023. (Courtesy of Voloj)

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.

The post ‘Can You Dig It?’: New podcast traces how a Puerto Rican-Jewish gang leader helped create hip-hop in the Bronx appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces who according to Lebanese security sources was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, in Khirbet Selm, Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government to de-escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed terrorist group wields significant political and military influence.

In Israel’s north, Hezbollah terrorists have been firing rockets at Israel daily from southern Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, leading Israeli forces to strike back. Tensions have been escalating between both sides, fueling concerns that the conflict in Gaza — the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, another Iran-backed Islamist terrorist group, to Israel’s south — could escalate into a regional conflict.

More than 80,000 Israelis evacuated Israel’s north in October and have since been unable to return to their homes. The majority of those spent the past eight months residing in hotels in safer areas of the country. The mass displacement has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a swift resolution to the situation.

The ongoing conflict between both sides escalated on Tuesday when senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah was killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching over 200 missiles into northern Israel. 

During Abdullah’s funeral, senior Hezbollah official Hachem Saffieddine vowed that the terrorist group would intensify its strikes on Israel. 

“Our response after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb will be to intensify our operations in severity, strength, quantity and quality,” Saffieddine said. “Let the enemy wait for us in the battlefield.”

In Israel, meanwhile, officials have said they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current crisis but are prepared to escalate military action to push Hezbollah back from the border in order to allow internally displaced Israelis to return home. Polling has shown that the majority of the Israeli public wants the military to engage in expanded actions against the Lebanese terrorist group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been advising Netanyahu against pursuing the idea of a “limited war” against Hezbollah, arguing that it could spark a regional war throughout the Middle East. According to multiple reports, US officials have warned Israel that Iran could dispatch militants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen into Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s effort.

The White House has also expressed concern  that Israeli officials do not have a clear strategy on how to keep the war contained to solely Lebanon. Fear of a broader regional war has intensified the Biden administration’s urgency to finalize a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which launched the ongoing war in Gaza by slaughtering over 1,200 people throughout southern Israel and kidnapping more than 250 others on Oct. 7.

“We are concerned about an increase in activity in the north. We don’t want this to escalate to a broad regional conflict and we urge de-escalation,” a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters this week.

The Pentagon also released a statement saying that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin discussed efforts to “de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression.”

According to multiple reports, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden for energy and investment, will head to Israel on Monday in an effort to temper tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah. Hochstein will meet with Netanyahu and Gallant with the goal of swaying them against green-lighting a “limited ground invasion” in Lebanon. Hochstein will reportedly also journey to Beirut to conduct discussions with Lebanese officials.

“There was a lot of work, diplomatic work done behind the scenes by several folks in the US administration, working with regional powers and our allies to try and tamp this down,” Hochstein has said regarding the prospect of a regional war erupting in the Middle East.

Hochstein argued that preventing a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon requires “active engagement” with both parties and for the public of both countries to “understand the risks” of further escalation. He added that “despite the bravado talk” coming from government officials, Lebanese people do not to go to war with Israel.

“The bottom line is a lot of civilians will die,” Hochstein said.

Despite chest-thumping by Hezbollah leaders, experts believe that the elimination of Abdullah might cause Hezbollah to exercise caution in engaging further with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

The powerful elimination worries Hezbollah members. They now understand that the IDF knows much more about them than we do,” Professor Amatzia Baram told The Jerusalem Post. “Additionally, the operation indicates that Hezbollah’s field security is not airtight and that the organization’s intelligence system has been penetrated to such an extent that we were able to eliminate such an important sector commander. The IDF managed to infiltrate their networks and systems and identify the right people for elimination.”

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Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel

Iranian protesters carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-US and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

Fatemeh Sepehri, a prominent Iranian dissident and political prisoner, has been sentenced to an additional 18 and a half years in prison after she publicly expressed support for Israel.

The harsh prison sentence appeared to be at least partly in response to a video clip released on Oct. 16 from Ghaem Hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in which Sepehri, who suffers from a heart ailment, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel. Hamas is backed by the Iranian regime, which provides the Palestinian terror group in Gaza with funding, weapons, and training.

“I emphatically declare that the Iranian nation stands in solidarity with the people of Israel,” she said. “I hope [Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks] closes the Islamic Republic’s chapter in history.”


For 45 years, Iranian women have tirelessly battled for their rights, freedom, and advancement. Among them, Fatemeh Sepehri has boldly challenged the ideals of the Islamic Republic. NUFDI proudly awards her the 2024 Humanitarian Award.

— سه خط طلا (@misanthropgirl) March 19, 2024

Although Fatimeh’s court records are unavailable to the public, her brother Asghar Sepehri tweeted details about the sentence. According to her sibling, Fatimeh was sentenced earlier this month by a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Mashhad to seven years for supporting Israel, another seven years for conspiring against internal security, three years for insulting Iran’s so-called “supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and one year and six months for propaganda against the Islamist regime.

Iran’s rulers regularly call for the destruction of Israel, often referring to the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” or “the Zionist entity.”

Sepehri was originally arrested in Sept. 2022 following the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked nationwide protests against the ruling Islamist regime on an unprecedented scale.

Sepehri’s pro-Israel video was posted after she was temporary released from prison to undergo open-heart surgery. According to her family, Sepehri has been subjected to intense “psychological torture” while in prison. Her brothers, Mohammad-Hossein and Hossein, have also received severe sentences for similar charges: eight years and two years and 11 months, respectively.

In the past, Sepehri has been an outspoken critic of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic more broadly. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported in 2021 that Sepehri said on video that she hoped to see the day when Khamenei would be dragged through the streets and killed like Libya’s late ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Days after Sepehri received her sentence, Iran released political prisoner Louis Arnaud, a French citizen, on Thursday. Arnaud was arrested in Sept. 2022 as anti-government protests were erupting across Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted shortly after Arnaud’s release, “Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran.”

Louis Arnaut is greeted by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport following his release from Iran. Photo: Screenshot

Three French nationals remain imprisoned in Iran as political prisoners. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné posted on social media that securing their release remains a top priority.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

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