Ghetto Mishpucha: A Crypto-Jew and the Birth of Hip Hop

When you think of hip-hop’s early roots you probably don’t think of non African-Americans in the inner-city, but upon a closer look an unlikely candidate was very much in the mix. A Puerto Rican Jew to be exact. Hit the jump for some insight.

Since arriving in the U.S. from Germany 10 years ago, journalist / photographer Julian Voloj has been peering publicly into numerous nooks and crannies of Jewish cultural life. He documented traces of vanished Jewish life in NYC in his exhibit Forgotten Heritage, explored the diversity of devotion in Black Jews: Another House of God, and perhaps most notoriously, gave his voice to a Russian Gangster in Grand Theft Auto 4.
His latest work is Warrior/Peacemaker, a promising graphic novel-in-progress with art by Claudia Ahlering, currently on display at the Columbia/Barnard Kraft Center, in an exhibition curated by Yona Verwer, President of the Jewish Art Salon.

 

Crypto-Jews and the birth of breakdancing, that’s quite a combo! How does it all connect in Warrior/Peacemaker?

It’s a true story, a non-fiction graphic novel set in New York in the late 60s/early 70s, based on the life of Benjamin Melendez, a Puerto Rican immigrant and founder of the Ghetto Brothers — both the gang and the music group.  In 1971, he initiated the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting and negotiated a gang truce that sowed the seeds for break dancing, graffiti, and hip-hop. While he was making history, he found out his parents, who suspiciously lit candles on Friday nights, were “Crypto-Jews” and he decided to reclaim his religious roots.

Your journalism background must have come in handy in this project…

Yes, I conducted dozens of interviews with Benjamin and other former activists, gang members, and hip hop pioneers.

The Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting was a huge deal. What’s its significance?

In December 1971, Black Benjie, a member of the Ghetto Brothers, was killed trying to mediate a dispute between two other gangs. The city was at the edge of bankruptcy, and especially in the Bronx, violence ruled the streets. When Black Benjie died, everyone feared the situation would escalate. Melendez worked to make the opposite happen. He invited the South Bronx gangs to meet at a gym on Hoe Avenue, and they decided, in true happy ending-style, that instead of fighting each other, they should together address the social injustices they were all up against day in and day out.

How did this help lead to the birth of hip hop?

Because of the truce, gang members could enter each other’s turf and not get beaten up. Instead of fighting…[Read Full Article]

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