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In Memoriam: Remembering Julius Lester

Julius Lester and Richard Michelson. Photo: Seth Kaye

When I contacted Julius Lester (1939–2018) in 2014 to ask if he would join us at my gallery to accept the seventh annual Reader to Reader Norton Juster Award for Devotion to Literacy, he said he was pleased to be celebrated and would get back to me after checking the football schedule.

I wasn’t surprised. This was a man who had his priorities in order. Just before the 2008 presidential election he had emailed me to say: “The anxiety of waiting to see how the election is going to turn out is almost unbearable. I’m hoping that the Almighty knows that since the Pats did not win the Super Bowl, Obama has to win the election.” (Still, he’d have traded both his team’s 2015 and 2017 victories to keep our current disaster out of the White House; I’m hoping the Pats’ loss this year means the Almighty is planning an impeachment.)

Julius and I met thirty-six years ago (double chai) on my first visit to a synagogue. I’d grown up in a household that rejected religion of any kind. My mother, rebelling against an Orthodox upbringing, refused to step into a temple. My father was too busy making a living to worry about spiritual matters. When I married a Methodist, I insisted on a civil ceremony. It was when she was pregnant with our first child that Jennifer informed me she was converting to Judaism. I thought it was a terrible idea. To make matters worse, Rabbi Lander suggested she begin attending Friday night services, and she insisted I join her. And there was Julius, on the same mission as my wife, tallit over his head, davening in the first row.

Here is what I believed I knew about him: Black militant who had hosted an NYC radio show and courted controversy by allowing an anti-Semitic poem to be read over the air. SNCC activist and civil rights folksinger whose second book (after a guitar manual co-authored with Pete Seeger, The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly) was titled Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! And those things were all true. But here is what I didn’t know. Julius was thoughtful, kind, searching, and an inspiring teacher who had a great, booming laugh.

Nor did I yet know that Julius was writing for kids. Who would have looked at that book title and seen a children’s book author in the making? Well, actually, editors Joyce Johnson and Phyllis Fogelman — that’s who. The language Julius used in both his adult and children’s books is colloquial, emotional, direct, and — although this was often missed at the time — really funny. The way I see it, Julius’s language combines the African American oral tradition with the Jewish propensity for arguing with God (or, honestly, anyone). “Who am I?” was a question Julius asked himself every day. Isn’t that what our children are also searching to discover?

I am not going to discuss Julius’s many books or list his awards and achievements (you can Google them). I won’t reiterate Julius’s road from son of a Methodist minister to Jew. To learn that story, I urge you to read Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, which is the best book on identity I have ever read, regardless of one’s religion (or lack thereof), and more relevant today than ever.

Each week my wife would be given a few chapters in a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer to read, while the rabbi would assign Julius a dozen books — fat histories, philosophies, biographies, fictions, which he would devour while also studying Hebrew. “You are my best student ever,” the rabbi said to Julius when he led services for the first time at our synagogue. Still, as I told Julius after Jennifer went into labor while in the ritual bath: “With all your learning, let’s see you do that trick.” Cue his big, booming laugh! Twelve years later Julius would reference that story — laugh and all — when he honored us as cantor for our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

Though he kept a kosher home and would later also visit the mikvah, Julius didn’t follow the laws blindly. They had to make sense, and he figured God would make allowances. Watching sports on the Sabbath, for instance. Julius supposed “some mornings God is more interested in hearing scores than prayers.” And if God did show up to tell him to turn off the TV, Julius knew he could “convince God to pull up a chair.”

Julius made a difference in my life by example. I did not always agree with his views, but he taught me not to be afraid to state my opinions, to discuss (“argue”) reasonably, and to have a laugh at the ready. He taught me to find the mystical in the mundane. He encouraged me to write for children. And when I published an essay about my father’s murder during a racial incident in Brooklyn, he sent me a response I will always cherish. “Rich, given your story it is remarkable that you can write with such love about black-Jewish relations. Yes, eventually everything does ‘boil to the surface,’ but the nature of that boiling and what the contents do to ‘the surface’ can eventually be corrosive or healing. It seems to me that you have a story to tell about how to transform the boiling over into a healing.” (That story became my picture book As Good as Anybody, which Julius recorded in audio form.)

During his acceptance speech at my gallery, Julius talked about his original reluctance when asked to write a version of John Henry to be illustrated by his good friend and fellow artistic genius Jerry Pinkney. Julius wasn’t sure he wanted to take on the project — how do you write a book for children in which the main character’s death is the end of the story? Then he remembered a minister friend he’d heard talking about a member of the congregation who had recently passed on. It gave him an ending for the book, and it gives me an ending for this remembrance.

Julius Lester is dead. Let us all stand and applaud the life that he led.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.

Richard Michelson About Richard Michelson

Richard Michelson is the owner of the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, MA. His children’s books include The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew (Charlesbridge), Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy (Knopf), and As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom (Knopf).

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