The writer Julius Lester died on January 18.
An African American, he was the son of a Methodist minister and, as he learned, the great grandson of a Jewish man. He was a vocal supporter of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, an essayist and writer, a musician and photographer, an academic who retired as a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the author of, among many other works, including many for children, “Lovesong,” the 1988 memoir subtitled “Becoming a Jew.”
He was, in other words, very complicated and quintessentially American. He was at the center of a debate about anti-Semitism — he had a radio program and allowed the reading of a seriously nasty, undeniably anti-Semitic poem on the air during the New York City teachers’ strike in 1968.
He also became more and more sure that his soul would be most fulfilled were he to become Jewish — he realized that on the most profound level it already was Jewish — so he converted. “Lovesong” is the story of his Jewishness, and it is deeply beautiful.
Mr. Lester never left his identity as a black man behind, and he filtered what he saw through that identity. He also took on his identity as a Jew, and once he recognized it for what it was, he filtered everything he saw through that vantage point as well.
What he saw was idiosyncratic, important, and true.
His changes can be traced throughout his academic career at UMass; he joined its department of Afro-American studies in 1971 and became an associate professor in 1975. In 1977, he became a full professor there. From 1982 to 1988, he had a joint appointment in that department and the department of Judaic studies; he retired as professor emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern studies.
Joseph Prouser, the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, was particularly touched by Dr. Lester’s death because he had been touched by Mr. Lester’s life. Mr. Lester’s affiliation was with the Conservative movement. That’s because, as Rabbi Prouser said, “He was an intellectual and spiritual searcher and he came to Judaism both for its spiritual richness and community and because it provides room for free thinking and critical analysis.” That’s what he found in Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Prouser, who is Conservative, said.
Rabbi Prouser knew Mr. Lester because Mr. Lester had been a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts. That was Rabbi Prouser’s shul; his father, Mel Prouser, was the gabbai there for 34 years.
At the end of “Lovesong,” Mr. Lester wrote about the first time he had an aliyah there. It was the gabbai, Mr. Prouser, who offered it to him, by asking if he was a kohen or a levi. That question told Mr. Lester that Mr. Prouser was assuming that this clearly African-American stranger was a Jew. That act of pure kindness told Mr. Lester that he was at home.
Later, Mr. Lester wrote, he often led parts of the service, and he writes about what it felt like the first time he led Hallel at B’nai Israel.
“I know now,” he wrote, in his memoir’s last page. “At long last I know what my voice was meant to sing. All those years I sang folk songs, spirituals, blues, work songs, and always knew that something was absent, that as much as I loved spirituals, I was not wholly present when I sang them. Now I know why. It was this music my voice was meant to sing.”
And it was Rabbi Prouser’s father who helped open that world to him.
It is a gabbai’s job to know who to ask; it’s a sense that the gabbai can develop and refine over the course of many years. “He had an instinct to know who to ask for what,” Rabbi Prouser said of his father. “It is both recognizing who should be honored because of events in their lives or experiences the gabbai knows they are going through, and also being sensitive to when someone feels the need to be included for any reason. Those are two different skills.”
Northampton was a progressive community, Rabbi Prouser said; egalitarianism came early to the shul there, and there weren’t racial issues. It is an academic town. But there is some irony in that. It was the home of Jonathan Edwards; it’s where the 18th-century Protestant theologian thundered about his congregants being “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as one of his most famous sermons put it, and warned about being “overrun by Jews and papists,” Rabbi Prouser said.
“In my American history classroom in Northampton High School, I could sit back in my chair and see the church where Edwards preached,” he added.
Eventually Mr. Lester left Northampton and therefore, necessarily, B’nai Israel; he moved to Vermont and joined a congregation there, Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, where he became a lay leader. But he kept his ties to the Northampton shul. “During one of the rabbinic interregnums, when the lay leaders had to do everything, my father often would do unveilings,” Rabbi Prouser said. “He had Julius Lester record El Moleh Rachamim” because his father particularly loved the way Mr. Lester did it, and wanted to learn how to do it that way himself.
The problem, Rabbi Prouser said delicately, was that his father’s voice was not particularly good. Or, as he put it, “My father taught me to daven, so his davening sounded great to me, but it was somewhat … uh… somewhat atonal. He was all but tone deaf.”
Mr. Lester, on the other hand, “had a beautiful voice, the voice of a real baal tefilah,” the singer who voices the congregation’s prayers. “A rich, deep voice, and the El Moleh Rachamim he recorded was very beautiful.
“So for my father to say, as he often did, that he was doing the Julius Lester version of El Moleh carried a bit of irony.
“The one mercy to it was that Julius never heard my father do it, because if Julius was there, then Julius would do it.”
Rabbi Prouser did get to hear Mr. Lester’s version. When his mother, Anne, a high school math teacher, died, “Julius did the El Moleh at her funeral,” he said. “It was a great comfort to my father. It was beautiful.”
He knew Mr. Lester; in fact, when he wrote his own first book, “Noble Soul: The Life and Legend of the Vilna Ger Tzedek,” a study of an 18th-century Polish count who converted to Judaism — and was martyred for it — he sent the manuscript to Mr. Lester early in the process. The connection between reader and subject was obvious, and Mr. Lester “was very encouraging about the project,” Rabbi Prouser said.
Rabbi Prouser tells one more story about Mr. Lester. “In his autobiography, he gives his Hebrew name as Yakov ben Avraham, but later in life he called himself Lev Sameach.” In English, that’s Joyous Heart. Not a conventional name, but then nothing about Julius Lester was conventional.