This evening, we learned of the death, at the age of 79, of the African-American author and activist, Julius Lester.
The last time I was in touch with Julius was when I asked him to contribute to my volume, The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary.
I remember how I had read his submission, and mused to myself — that it was nothing short of a modern miracle that anyone would have thought that Julius Lester would ever have anything to say about the Torah.
Or, about anything Jewish, for that matter. Or, anything positive to say about Judaism and/or the Jews.
Julius Lester first gained a dose of notoriety during the 1968 New York City school teachers’ strike.
A quick primer. The New York City school teachers’ strike was provoked by the decentralization of New York City schools, with the creation of community school boards. In Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a group of teachers were fired, many of whom were Jewish. This action provoked the teachers’ strike, as well as a confrontation between blacks and Jews that has left its enduring scars.
Julius hosted a radio show on the independent station, WBAI, and he invited a black administrator to speak on the show.
The administrator read a poem written by a black child: “Hey Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head, you pale-faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead.”
The backlash was fast and furious. Julius defended his choice to air that vile piece of literature, saying that we needed to hear how the strike had affected black children.
Fast forward from the WBAI incident.
Julius Lester remembered something that he had known since he was a child — that he had a German Jewish ancestor. That memory, and perhaps the backlash over the anti-Semitic poem, pushed him into an encounter with his Jewish family background.
Lo and behold, Julius Lester joined the Jewish people. Read about it in his autobiography, Love Song. He taught in both the black studies and Jewish studies departments at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
He also served as the lay leader of the Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. A sweet coincidence: this was my first student pulpit when I was a rabbinical student.
Julius was a musician, as well. He had an amazing voice. The most beautiful rendition of “Yigdal” I ever heard was the one that he sang, at his old synagogue in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The story of Julius Lester is an amazing story of personal transformation and of spiritual growth, a story of the reclamation of a family legacy, and of a man who had the inner strength to give that legacy both wings and music.
Consider what he had to say about Pharaoh’s daughter in the book of Exodus, who adopted the infant Moses:
I can imagine a young woman dissatisfied with the life and values bequeathed her by her father. It is a life without substance, though every physical need was filled and every material desire satisfied. She has reached that critical moment in life where dissatisfaction has become unbearable and action is required…It is at such times that God presents us with an opportunity to act, if we recognize it as such. (“Here Am I” – A Personal Midrash on Pharaoh’s Daughter,” New Traditions, Spring, 1984.)
Julius Lester wrote, and taught, not only for his time — but for our time.
When a group idealizes itself as the apotheosis of humanity, it automatically creates an Other, a Them. Richard Grunberger in The Twelve Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany writes: The white outline of the German’s image of themselves – in terms of character no less than of colour – acquired definition only via the moral and physical darkness of its Jewish anti-type. Metaphysically as well as materially, the roots of the German heaven were deeply embedded in the Jewish hell….the majority of Germans accepted Jew-baiting…as an integral part of a system beneficial to themselves.
Racism and anti-Semitism benefit a group by satisfying, in George Mosse’s words “a longing for coherence, for community and for an ideal in the face of a changing world….[Racism is] part of the drive to define man’s place in nature and of the hope for an ordered, healthy and happy world….the racist outlook fuses man’s outward appearance with his place in nature and the proper function of his soul.”
To read those words after Charlottesville is to shiver and tremble.
But, my favorite Julius Lester line:
“We Jews have taken our suffering, and offered it as a long-stemmed rose to humanity.”
Julius Lester knew that the rose is a thing of uncommon beauty, and that the beauty concealed thorns.
Julius Lester was saying: Those who suffer have a moral obligation to make sure that they understand their suffering as a lesson to the world, and also to themselves. It is a lesson that forbids silence in the face of oppression. Anything less is a mockery of that pain.
May his memory be a blessing. More than this: may the memory of his life passage serve as an inspiration.