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Julius Lester

(1939 – 2018)

Julius Lester explored his many talents in a vivid and multifaceted life. He was a musician, radio host, civil rights activist, university professor, writer of over 40 books, photographer, and a spiritual seeker. His journey to Judaism defied expectations and convention.

Lester was born on January 27, 1939, in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1941, the family moved to Kansas City, Kansas, and then to Nashville, Tennessee in 1952. Lester was deeply attached to Pine Bluff Arkansas where his maternal grandparents lived. His father was a Methodist minister who imparted in Julius a sense of sanctity and separateness. Lester studied English at Fisk University in Nashville and graduated in 1960. 

He was active in the Civil Rights movement, going to Mississippi in 1964 as part of the Mississippi Summer Project. Lester worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil rights groups that coined the phrase “black power.” Lester’s 1966 essay “The Angry Children of Malcolm X,” is considered one of the definitive African-American statements of its era. As his reputation grew, Lester wrote Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gonna’ Get Your Mama! (1968), which he characterized as the “first book about the black power movement by someone inside the black power movement.”

Lester recorded two albums of traditional and original songs for Vanguard Records: Julius Lester (1966) and Departures (1967) and he performed on the coffeehouse circuit. A compilation of songs from both albums was released on a CD, Dressed Like Freedom, on Ace Records in 2007.

He hosted Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a radio show on WBAI-FM (1968–75), and co-hosted (with Jonathan Black) Free Time, a television show on WNET-NY (Channel 13) for two years. During the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike, Lester used his radio show to feature a provocatively anti-Semitic poem written by a high school student. Jewish listeners were furious, but Lester defended the reading, arguing that it gave listeners a window into the mood of the black community.

Lester lost faith that political action could be personally fulfilling and began a search through Christian spiritual traditions. This yearning led to his conversion to Judaism in 1982. In his memoir, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew (1988), he traced his path to his Jewish identity.

“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.”

As a child Lester learned that his maternal great-grandfather was a German Jew named Adolph Altschul who had immigrated from Germany sometime before the Civil War. He met an ex-slave named Maggie Carson and they had six children together, one of whom was Lester’s grandmother.

Lester’s conversion surprised those who knew him from the union strike incident, but also made him an important symbol at a time when racial diversity among Jews was not widely known or celebrated.

From 1968 to 1970, alongside his activities as a radio host in New York, Lester taught Afro-American history at the New School for Social Research. He joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1971 as a professor of African American Studies.

His growing Jewish identity, support for Israel, and rejection at what he saw as black anti-Semitism led to political differences with faculty. In March 1988, the Afro-American Studies faculty wrote a letter to the university administration recommending that Lester be reassigned to a different department, calling him “an anti-Negro Negro.” Lester transferred to the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department (where he had held a joint appointment since 1982) and remained there  until his retirement at the end of 2003.

Lester was awarded all three of the university’s most prestigious faculty awards: the Distinguished Teacher’s Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor’s Medal, the university’s highest honor. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year 1986.

Lester found himself being constantly “asked for insights into black-Jewish divisions.” “People think I have some magic formula,” he said. “And I don’t.”

“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.”

“Jews make the assumption that they have a lot in common with blacks. It’s not an assumption that blacks share,” he said “The black assumption is that Jews are white people. And blacks don’t understand that most Jews don’t see themselves as white

Ironically, Lester’s path back to his family’s Judaism was met by the realization, years later, that the Altschul family had left behind their Jewish identity.

Lester wrote eight nonfiction books, 31 children’s books, one book of poetry and photographs (with David Gahr), and three adult novels. His first book was an instructional guide to playing the 12-string guitar, co-authored with Pete Seeger. Among the awards his books received were the Newbery Honor, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, National Book Award finalist, ALA Notable Book, National Jewish Book Award finalist, National Book Critics Circle Honor Book, and the New York Times Outstanding Book Award.

He published more than 200 essays and book and film reviews for such publications as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Op-Ed page, The Boston Globe, Village Voice, The New Republic, Sing Out!, Moment, Forward and Dissent.

His photographs were included in an exhibit of images from the civil rights movement at the Smithsonian Institution. He had solo shows at the University of Massachusetts Student Union Gallery, the Forbes Library, Northampton, Mass., Valley Photo Center, Springfield, Mass., and the Robert Floyd Photography Gallery, Southampton, Mass.

Lester served as lay leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont for a decade.

Julius Lester died on January 18, 2018, in Palmer, Massachusetts. He was 78.

Sources: Paul Berman, Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments, (Delta, 1995).
Julius Lester, “Passing for Black?: Another Perspective,” My Jewish Learning, (July 7, 2015).
Julius Lester, Breaking Our Bond of Shame, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1994).
Sam Kestenbaum, “Julius Lester Hailed As Role Model For Jews Of Color After Death At 78,” Forward, (January 21, 2018).
Marjorie Ingall, “Goodbye to Julius Lester, the Ultimate Contrarian,” Tablet, (January 22, 2018).
Gail Arlene Ito, Julius Lester (1939-2018), BlackPast, (January 27, 2018).
“Julius Lester,” Wikipedia.

Photo: Wikimedia.