Remembering Julius Lester — And a Stop Along His Spiritual Journey

A meaningful and surprising first encounter creates lasting bond

As the Jewish world — and much of the rest — mourns the passing of Julius Lester, I remember the man I met when his spiritual journey was not quite complete.

Lester, 78, of Belchertown, Mass., passed away peacefully on Jan. 18, his daughter Lian Amaris posted on his Facebook page. Earlier this year, Lester wrote he had been suffering from emphysema.

I first met him 31 years ago. Then, I was assigned to do a National Public Radio story about his version of the tales of Uncle Remus — African folklore that had been appropriated by whites — retold from a black perspective.

This was long before you could Google anyone, and my prepping told me he was an author and professor, but little else. Born in St. Louis, the son of a Methodist minister, Lester became a folk singer and organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Later, he became one of its more radical voices as the Civil Rights Movement gave way to Black Power. His activism and books led to an appointment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I met him in 1987 and began our conversation by asking what his job title was.

Julius Lester (left) reads a selection from his retelling of the Tales of Uncle Remus in a 1987 interview on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus with Robin Washington for WGBH TV’s “Say Brother” program. Screen shot courtesy WGBH.

“I don’t like titles,” he gnarled back, leading me to rephrase the question. “OK, just tell me your name and what you do.”

“My name is Julius Lester and I teach … in Afro-American and Judaic Studies.”

Whaa…? Do they group all minorities in one department here? I thought, but continued with the interview.

For that, he was enthusiastic, his booming voice bringing Brer Rabbit to life while explaining the symbolism of African trickster figures. When he finished, I returned to my unasked question: if Afro-American and Judaic studies were one department.

“No, they’re separate,” he replied — then added, pausing for effect: “I’m Jewish.”

“Well, so am I!” I said, and we both fell back laughing. I had been pulling the “Surprise! I’m Black and Jewish!” trick practically since birth, and had 30 more years experience being a Black Jew than he did.

But I had never pulled it on another Black Jew, and was pretty certain Lester hadn’t had the tables turned, either. We agreed I should come back. I did, with a camera crew for public television’s WGBH in Boston.

Again we discussed his books but also more contentious stuff: The Jewish hostility hurled at him in 1968, for airing an anti-Semitic poem on his New York radio show in the midst of a fierce school desegregation battle, and accusations nearly 20 years later that now he was taking the Jewish side in disputes between the groups at UMass. He would later be forced from the Afro-Am Department.

Most sensitive, we covered his spirituality, beginning from when he learned as a child that his great-grandfather had been a Jew, and Lester’s vow to convert some day. He did, in 1982. With that identity still fairly new to him, I pressed whether Jews would ever truly welcome him.

That wasn’t why he converted, he said. “It had to be something that was so necessary for my sense of who I am, that I would (convert) even if no Jew ever accepted me.”

Similarly, if anyone suggested he was attempting to shed his blackness, his writing did anything but. He frequently returned to the horrors of slavery, and uncomfortable subjects like “Let’s Talk about Race” — written as a children’s book. Not to mention he had earlier written a book entitled, “Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!” — and never backtracked from it.

Though Lester had other stops along his spiritual journey — an early autobiography, “All is Well,” ended with finding solace in a monastery — in the decades since we met he grew to be far more than just accepted by Jews. So too did awareness of Black Jews in general, in part through groups formed to painstakingly explain that we are neither exotics nor the punchlines of Sammy Davis Jr. jokes, but normative constituents of the black and Jewish experiences.

Though we invited him to join, and help lead, the newly formed Alliance of Black Jews in 1995, he declined, endorsing our activities but preferring to work in his quieter ways.

He did so brilliantly — through his books and articles, lectures and mentoring, and lay leadership of a small Vermont synagogue; touching the hearts of thousands and making it clear to all that being a Black Jew was hardly an anomaly.

Over the decades, we checked in from time to time, as brothers in a struggle do. The last few weeks were clear he would not long be with us.

As his corporeal existence ends, mourners should mark his passing as a homegoing, not a loss. He gave much to many, and had a pretty good life.

And a spiritual journey completed.

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