I grew up in Boro Park, next door to a family of Satmar chassidim.

There was a shul on my block, but I never walked into it.

I didn’t like Jews. Whenever I walked down Thirteenth Avenue, I’d feel their stares and feel judged by them. I could tell they looked at me as a creep, a criminal.

They had every reason to look at me that way. In those days, I sported giant earrings, vulgar T-shirts, multiple tattoos, and piercings all over my face. Plus an eight-inch red mohawk.

The Satmar chassidim next door, I actually liked. They knew me from the time I was a little kid, and they weren’t afraid of me. But I never told them I was Jewish.

How could I, when I didn’t actually consider myself a Jew? My mom’s great-grandparents had been religious — we have a picture of my great-great-grandfather wearing a yarmulke — but I grew up without a vestige of Jewish observance.

My dad wasn’t Jewish; he called himself Catholic, even though he rarely attended church. A heavy drinker, he drifted in and out of jail, physically and verbally abusing my mom, my two siblings, and me when he was home. I would often wear long-sleeve shirts to public school to cover the bruises on my arms, while my mom would apply makeup to conceal the bruises on my face and neck.

Already in elementary school I knew I could never succeed at anything. Unlike my older brother, who was an honors student, all I knew how to do was skateboard. And fight. “Why don’t you just kill yourself?” my brother would advise me, echoing my dad’s frequent suggestion to me. “You won’t amount to anything anyway.”

Many of the guys in my high school belonged to local gangs. Gangs afforded protection; if you wore the gang colors, your buddies would fight for you, and members of rival gangs would think twice before starting up with you. If you were a loner, you were a prime target for beatings and muggings.

My best friend in high school, Carlos, was a member of a local gang called Scars of Desire (SOD), and he initiated me into the gang, whose colors were black and white.

We spent our afternoons and evenings hanging out: playing basketball or handball, doing bare-knuckle boxing, smoking, and looking for people to fight with. If a guy wearing another gang color entered our turf, we’d interrogate him:

“Whatup? Who you represent? You with the Filthy Dogs?”

Then we’d beat him up.

If we saw a guy who wasn’t wearing any gang colors, we’d go up to him, trip him, empty his pockets, and run away. When things got boring, we’d venture out of our neighborhood looking for action. “Yo, man, you look at me funny.” Wham.

In my years as a gang member, I got kicked in the head a couple of times, I had glass bottles smashed on my head, I got my nose broken, my ribs broken, my fingers broken. Gang members stay far away from medical people and their nosy questions, so after each injury I’d take a handful of aspirin and go to bed. Friends of mine who sustained serious gashes slugged some alcohol and had their pals stitch them up at home with an old-fashioned needle and thread.

Painfully aware of the damage alcohol had done to my dad and my family, I never swallowed a drop of it. Many of the gang members used or sold drugs, but my Jewish grandfather (my mom’s father) used to warn me that if he’d catch me doing drugs, he’d disown me. He was my second-favorite person in the world, after my mom, and the only man in my life I actually respected. Unlike my dad, he was there for me — he would take me for long drives to nowhere and just talk to me, and he would take me shopping for clothes and other things I needed. Had he disowned me, I would have had no life, so I obeyed him faithfully and never touched any illegal substances. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 672)