It wasn’t easy growing up in the gang-riddled Bronx of the 1960s and ‘70s, especially for the son of Puerto Rican immigrants — and especially when your family was descended from Marranos: Jews forced to practice Judaism in secret to avoid persecution.
But from that turmoil emerged Benjy Melendez, a legend in the Bronx gang community, a peace-mongering mensch, and the subject of a volatile new graphic novel, “Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker.”
Penned by photojournalist Julian Voloj and inked by Claudia Ahlering, “Ghetto Brother” charts “Brother Benjy’s” story as the founder of Ghetto Brothers, a notorious South Bronx gang that decided peace was healthier than violence. Melendez collaborated with Voloj and Ahlering to tell the story of how he and his gang parlayed a truce between the gangs of the region into a long-term peace, ushering in an era of nonviolence and music. The graphic novel turns its eye on how Melendez began to reclaim his Jewish roots, returning openly to what, for him, had been only a crypto-Jewish identity.
Rendered in frenetic, splotchy blacks and whites against stark New York City cityscapes, “Ghetto Brother” is absorbing — a true testament to the power of faith in goodwill.