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Goodbye to Julius Lester, the Ultimate Contrarian

On the death of an African-American Jewish storyteller and provocateur

Marjorie Ingall
January 22, 2018
Via YouTube
Julius LesterVia YouTube
Via YouTube
Julius LesterVia YouTube

Julius Lester died on January 18, at 78. The author of over 40 books for children and adults, he’d been named a Newbery Honor winner, a National Book Award Finalist, a New York Times Outstanding Book Award winner, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, author of a Caldecott Honor Book, winner of a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and a National Jewish Book Award Finalist. His books were translated into eight languages. He was a professor at the University of Massachusetts for over 30 years. And he managed, at one point or another, to enrage everyone.

The son of a Methodist minister, Lester grew up in the Black church. He loved music, photography, art. In an essay for Be’chol Lashon, the organization that celebrates Jewish racial, ethnic and cultural diversity, he wrote about being reprimanded by the dean of his historically Black college “because I wore jeans on campus and sat on the library lawn playing my guitar.” (He kept doing it.) He went to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to register African-American voters, and to document the civil rights movement in photographs and lead resisters in song. That led to his first published book, co-authored with folksinger Pete Seeger in 1965: The Twelve-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly.

He first came to the attention of most Jews in 1968, when he hosted a radio show on New York City’s WBAI. That year, the city was riven by a teachers’ strike, throwing tensions between the predominantly Jewish union and the predominantly African-American Brownsville, Brooklyn community into sharp relief. On Lester’s radio show that December, he asked an African-American teacher to read a poem written by one of his high school students. (The teacher responded, “Are you crazy?!” but Lester insisted.) The poem was dedicated to Albert Shanker, then-president of the teachers’ union, and began: “Hey, Jew-boy, with that yarmulke on your head / You pale-faced Jew-boy—I wish you were dead.” Jewish listeners were furious, but Lester responded, “I think it’s important for people to know the kinds of feelings being aroused in at least one black child because of what’s happening in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.”

Lester himself had always been drawn to Judaism. At age seven or so, he learned that his maternal great-grandfather was a German-Jewish immigrant named Adolph Altschul; his great-grandmother was a freed slave, Maggie Carson. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s, when he taught a college course on Black and Jewish history, that he felt drawn to explore Jewish teachings in more depth.

“Identity is mysterious,” he wrote.

“When I was a child I used to play over and over on the piano a simplified arrangement of ‘Kol Nidre.’ I was haunted by that melody. I had no idea where it came from or what it meant, but I loved it. Many years later I attended synagogue one Saturday morning when the daughter of a friend was being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. This was some years before my conversion, and I remember sitting in the service listening to the cantor singing the various melodies of the Shabbat morning service, and I found myself almost in tears because I wanted to pray in song as she (the cantor) was doing, and I never would because I wasn’t Jewish.”

In 1982, he converted. “I first met Julius 35 years ago, when he and my wife converted to Judaism together,” recalled National Jewish Book Award and Sydney Taylor Award-winning author Richard Michelson in an interview. “They were a class of two, studying with Rabbi Yechiel Lander. My wife would come home and complain that the rabbi had given her one book to read by I.B. Singer for the next class, and Julius would be assigned 20 books, all of which he read and came prepared to discuss. By the third week he had learned Hebrew!” (This may be a slight exaggeration, which would be only fitting when discussing a man who wrote multiple beloved children’s books on folktales and folklore.) In 1988, Lester wrote a much-lauded memoir about his journey to Judaism: Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. Not everyone was thrilled.

“I had people tell me that a person could not be a black and a Jew,” he wrote.

“Blacks I had known for years acted differently around me, as if I had changed personalities. Yet, I knew that if I had converted to Catholicism, no one would have cared. If I had become a Muslim, blacks would have embraced me. But I had become a Jew, and somehow, for many, that obliterated my identity as a black person.” The New York Times, in its obituary, wrote, “Ultimately, Mr. Lester’s personal, political and religious transformations lent a Cubist quality to his vision, allowing him to perceive myriad facets of American oppression simultaneously.” True that.

As much as he infuriated Jews in 1968, he infuriated African-Americans in the 1980s. In Lovesong, Lester criticized James Baldwin for calling the news media to task for its reporting on Jesse Jackson’s use of the slur “Hymietown” about New York City. Lester wrote, “I know he is not an anti-Semite, but his remarks in class were anti-Semitic, and he does not realize it.” At the time, Lester was teaching in U Mass’s Afro-American Studies department. The faculty forced him to resign, calling him “an anti-Negro Negro.” (He continued to teach in the University’s English, Judaic Studies, and history departments.) The resulting national debate about censorship, offensive speech and “political correctness” sounds familiar to anyone paying attention to the debates roiling campuses today.

Lester’s frequent children’s book collaborator Jerry Pinkney told Publisher’s Weekly, “Julius was a very direct person and spoke his mind. But what I loved about our relationship, with that in mind, was that I could always make him laugh—and he had a great laugh.” (Michelson, too, reminisced about Lester’s big, booming laugh.) Among the books Pinkney and Lester collaborated on was John Henry, a gorgeous 1995 Caldecott Honor Book, and 1996’s Sam and the Tigers, a sly, lovely, non-racist retelling of the story of Little Black Sambo. Lester also did the audiobook for Michelson’s Sydney Taylor Award-winning As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom. “He was funny, kind and a wonderful mentor,” Michelson said. “He always read my books concerning race and weighed in with advice.” And when it came time to do the audiobook of As Good As Anybody, Michelson was uncomfortable with the notion of doing African-American voices. “I asked Julius to do the recording instead,” Michelson said. “He readily agreed and made it seem like I was doing him a favor, instead of the other way around.”

Lester also fulfilled his dream of becoming a cantor. He served as lay leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont for a decade. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, recently reminisced about his talent. “He had an amazing voice,” Salkin recalled. “The most beautiful rendition of ‘Yigdal’ I ever heard was the one that he sang at his old synagogue in Northampton.” Perhaps Lester’s own history informed his observation, “We Jews have taken our suffering, and offered it as a long-stemmed rose to humanity.” Salkin observed, “Lester knew that the rose is a thing of uncommon beauty, and that the beauty concealed thorns.”

And he never stopped being thorny. He wrote a blog post about loathing being wished “Happy Hanukkah” by Jews, because it revealed Jewish ignorance—goyish ignorance was forgivable and well-meaning—of the holiday’s history. He discussed pre-Maccabean-revolt Assyrian-Greek history, noting, “Jews became so fluent in Greek they could no longer read the Torah in Hebrew… Jewish men had operations to have their circumcisions reversed by having a piece of skin reattached so they could exercise in the nude and pass for Greek.” (Who knew?) And today, Lester wrote, Jewish identity is similarly at risk, and that’s not cause for happiness. “‘Chanukkah’ means dedication,” he wrote, “dedication to Jewish values. Unfortunately, the eight-day observance is becoming a dedication to assimilation.”

He also refused to condemn Rachel Dolezal, the disgraced white NAACP leader in Spokane who kept insisting she was African-American. “Identity,” he wrote, “It is not only the color of our skins. Ultimately, who we are is as mysterious as the universe of which each of is mere dust. I hope that Rachel Dolezal will one day be able to celebrate the mystery and be who she is without anyone being so presumptuous as to tell her she isn’t.” It’s hard to square this statement with Lester’s career in chronicling African-American history and in writing To Be a Slave, the seminal 1968 Newbery Honor Book.

But he lived life infuriating people, sharing his truth in his writing, making friends laugh. (He told Michelson he could only accept The Norton Juster Award for Devotion to Children’s Literary in 2014 at a ceremony being held at Michelson’s gallery if it didn’t conflict with a football game he wanted to watch on TV.)

In 2009, Lester had the unusual experience of reading his own obituary. Someone—perhaps someone angry at his long career of being vexatious—had changed his Wikipedia page to indicate that he’d passed away. Children’s literature scholar Philip Nel called Lester to make sure he was among the living, and Lester promptly went to Wikipedia and saw the news of his own demise. “My very first response was to wonder if I had died and hadn’t gotten the news yet,” he wrote. “Who knows what it’s like to be dead? I thought about the old philosophical question: Am I a butterfly dreaming that I am me? I asked my wife to read this ‘news’ of my ‘death,’ and her doing so confirmed that I was, indeed, still alive.” The wry joke, and the lyrical telling of it, was quintessential Lester. May his complicated, maddening, loving memory be a blessing.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.