Julian Voloj came of age in the nation that gave rise to Nazism and forced his grandparents and great-grandparents to flee to South America. Growing up in a small German town near the Dutch border, the son of Colombian-born parents, the 41-year-old says he always felt that his Jewish and personal identity were complicated matters.
Voloj says it wasn’t until he moved to New York in 2003 that he truly found himself. Now, in his debut graphic novel, “Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker” (NBM Publishing) Voloj has told the story of another man’s quest for his own identity, a journey that crosses cultures and defies easy categorization.
The graphic novel’s subject is the true-life story of Benjamin “Benjy” Melendez, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. In the late 1960s, Melendez formed one of the Bronx’s most notorious gangs. Yet he always searched for hope and positivity in the direst situation. In 1971, with violence mounting, Melendez helped broker a gang truce. The respite from violence has been crediting with ushering in hip-hop and break dancing culture.
Oh, and if that’s not enough to warrant a tale, while exploring Puerto Rican nationalism and raising a child with his Chinese-American wife, Melendez discovers his family’s crypto-Jewish past and learns about the Jewish faith from the rabbi of the last remaining synagogue in the South Bronx. Only in his 20s does Melendez begin to understanding the meaning behind his father wrapping himself in a bed sheet to pray, or studying the Old Testament on Saturday.
“I just liked him. Benjy is a very sympathetic, charismatic guy,” said Voloj, who lives in Queens with his wife, former Forward reporter Lisa Keys, and their two sons. “He’s a tough Jew. He was a badass gang leader from the South Bronx. He grew up with a lot of disadvantages in life and he is still poor, living in Spanish Harlem. I wanted to tell his story so he gets some recognition.”
Additionally, the lover of hip- hop music was drawn to the genre’s origin story.
“In Germany, hip-hop is the music of the underground. A lot of people involved in hip-hop come from a migration background, an immigrant background,” Voloj told me. “In the U.S., I am considered white; in Germany, I was pretty exotic.”
The unlikely friendship between Voloj and Melendez began five years ago, when Voloj was working on a portrait series highlighting Jewish diversity in New York. (Voloj’s photo of Melendez would ultimately be featured in a 2013 photographic retrospective at the German consulate.) Though parts of the Ghetto Brothers saga had been told in Jeff Chang’s history of hip-hop, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” and in the documentary film “Flyin’ Cut Sleeves,” Voloj felt the material was perfect for a graphic novel.
He reconnected with German illustrator Claudia Ahlering, with whom he’d collaborated on a 1998 book about the Yiddish poet Itzhak Katzenelson, who was murdered at Auschwitz. Voloj attended the gang reunions, hearing the tales from as many sources as possible, and then crafted a script. Ahlering created the images from afar, relying on photographs and video footage of 1970s-era Bronx.
The final product is a stark, black-and-white work that depicts the Bronx at the height of America’s urban decay, the American dream reduced to the living nightmare of poverty, unemployment and neglect. In the late ’60s, the borough, once home to a solid Jewish middle class, now claimed more than 10,000 gang members — mostly poorer blacks and Latinos. The dilapidated neighborhoods that Jews abandoned en masse are explicated in comparison with the bombed-out streets of Dresden.
The story, told from Melendez’s perspective, is fictional; some names, dates and chronology have been changed to increase dramatic effect, Voloj said. While rendering one man’s story, the novel takes a wide-angel look at urban decay, the sociology of gang membership, the effects of Robert Moses’s grand civic project on neighborhoods, the rise of the Black Power and Puerto Rican Nationalist movement, the history of the Spanish Inquisition and the Jewish ghettos in Western Europe.
“We wanted a gritty, dark, edgy feeling, like a documentary film. The book is about his personal journey, trying to find his identity in the gang, Puerto Rican nationalism, social activism, embracing his Jewish roots,” Voloj said. “The identity question is close to my heart. Being Jewish in Germany is already a complex identity.” And on top of that, he had South American parents. “New York ended my quest for identity,” he said.
There’s a strong tradition of Jewish-themed graphic novels, from Will Eisner’s 1978 work “A Contract With God and Other Tenements Stories” to Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust saga, “Maus.” According to Eddy Portnoy, a Rutgers University professor whose dissertation focused on cartoons in the Yiddish press, “Ghetto Brother” follows in the Jewish graphic novel tradition, except when it doesn’t.
“The strength of the work is that its narrative is so fascinating and unique that it doesn’t fit so neatly in any category,” Portnoy said. “It’s a completely original story that is part Puerto Rican, part Jewish and all Bronx.”
“For me,” Voloj said, “the most important thing is that Benjy´s story finally gets the spotlight it deserves.”
Bryan Schwartzman has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for fiction. He lives in Philadelphia.