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by Bennett Muraskin
JULIUS LESTER (January 29, 1939-January 18, 2018) embodied the historic Black-Jewish bond in America, as well as Black-Jewish tensions, in his work as a prolific writer, folk musician, folklorist, and public intellectual -- and in the very fabric of his identity.
The son of a Black minister, he grew up in the upper South, graduated from the historically Black Fisk University in Nashville, then made his way to New York City with his guitar and joined the early 1960s folk scene, collaborating with none other than Pete Seeger on a music book, The Twelve String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly (Huddy Ledbetter, the iconic Black folk and blues singer). Committed to the civil rights struggle, Lester joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participated in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration campaign as an organizer, singer, and photographer.
In 1968, he was a host on WBAI, the radio voice of the countercultural left, doing shows on Black politics and culture. He had just published his first political book, with the provocative title, Look Out Whitey, Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama, when the New York teachers’ strike broke out, appearing to pit Jewish teachers against Black community activists in the Ocean Hill Brownsville school district in Brooklyn. Lester encouraged one of his guests, a Black school teacher, to read an explicitly antisemitic poem written by one of his students. The incident provoked a firestorm of controversy and charges of antisemitism that would dog Lester for years.
While teaching Afro-American history at the New School, Lester was known as a Black nationalist and separatist ready to quote Chairman Mao at the drop of a hat. By 1971, he was hired by the University of Massachusetts in Amhert to teach in the Afro-American Studies Department. Five years later, when he was barely 37, he wrote a memoir, All is Well, in which he declared his conversion to Catholicism in all its glory. In passing, he mentioned previous infatuations with American Indian religions and the mysticism of the ancient Chinese I Ching. Then an encounter with a Trappist monk somehow turned his interest to Judaism, bolstered by his reading of the Leon Uris novel Exodus and his own investigation of the Holocaust. By 1979, the man once accused of antisemitism was calling out Black leaders for antisemitism for blaming the Jewish lobby for UN Ambassador Andrew Young’s forced resignation for meeting with officials of the PLO in violation of government policy.
By 1982, after a course of study with a rabbi, Lester became a convert to Judaism, sealed by a circumcision. “It was a religion,” he asserted “where you can ask questions,” with the purpose of “mak[ing] holy the ordinary and find the mystical in the mundane.” Lester wrote about his journey to Judaism in a moving memoir, Lovesong: Becoming A Jew (1988), in which he described having learned from his father, when he was a child, that he was descended from a Jewish great-grandfather who had a child with his great-grandmother, a freed slave. Lester travelled to Arkansas to investigate. He discovered was that all of his great-grandfather’s white descendants had converted to Christianity, making him, a Black man, the only Jew left in the family.
The book received a scathing review from historian Cheryl Greenberg in the February 1989 issue of Jewish Currents. Greenberg had gone to the trouble of reading his first memoir, All is Well, and found many discrepancies between accounts of various episodes in his life detailed in each book. She also criticized certain passages as sexist and racist. Greenberg particularly took issue with Lester’s claims that James Baldwin had made antisemitic comments in a speech on Black-Jewish relations that he delivered on his campus in 1984, and that Lester had been driven from the University of Massachusetts’ Afro-American Studies Department by irate Black faculty for criticizing Baldwin. As for Lester’s newfound passion for Judaism, she questioned whether, in light of his past spiritual wanderings, it would be a passing fancy.
It was not, not by a long shot. Not only did Lester remain a devoted Jew, but he became a cantor and a lay leader of a synagogue in Vermont for a decade (1991-2001). By 1992, Lester had become an authority on Black-Jewish relations whose speech to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith was reprinted in the May 1992 issue of Jewish Currents. Lester’s “Report on Black Anti-Semitism” painted a bleak picture of Black people in America who turned to antisemitism out of “nihilism” and were “incapable of becoming productive members of society because they lack even the rudimentary skill of literacy.” In the space of a few decades, Lester had gone from celebrating Black pride to bemoaning Black degradation. In both instances, he ran to extremes. He did, however, give good advice to Jews, reminding them that the key to improving relations with Blacks was to stop pretending that Jews, too, are victims of oppression in America, and to use Jewish resources and political clout to alleviate poverty in the Black community. The Jewish Currents Editorial Board wrote an addendum to the article that praised Lester as an exemplar of “courage, eloquence, acuteness of perception and depth of penetration.”
“Julius Lester’s exploration of his Jewish roots in Lovesong, and the love for the Jewish tradition that he expressed,” says the magazine’s current editor, Lawrence Bush, “helped stimulate similar feelings within me and, probably, other radical Jews who were a lot more convinced of their radicalism than of their Jewishness. I guess the fact that Lester personified both a Black and a Jewish consciousness, and felt devotion to both, and was such a very eloquent writer and very solid activist, helped to politically ‘kosher’ my sense of Jewish commitment.”
Lester also helped other African American Jews to feel comfortable with their hybrid identities and for white Jews to recognize that we come in all colors.
Academically, Lester remained at the University of Massachusetts for thirty-two years, acquiring an excellent reputation as a teacher of African-American literature, Jewish history, the Bible, the lives and thought of Eli Wiesel and W.E.B Du Bois, and his most popular course, “Social Change in the 1960s” taught by a man who helped make it. He wrote books about the Black experience in America as well as many essays, book and film reviews for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Village Voice, the New Republic, Dissent, the Forward and Moment. Lester’s greatest literary achievements were probably made as a children’s author of thirty-one books, some of which garnered prestigious awards.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.