Editorial: Julius Lester touched many lives in the valley


Saturday, January 27, 2018

Julius Lester, whose prolific work as an educator, activist, writer and photographer kept him in the public eye, in more private ways touched the lives of many people in the Pioneer Valley during the last five decades.

Lester died Jan. 18 at the age of 78 as the result of emphysema. On Jan. 3, Lester acknowledged in the final post he made on his Facebook page how difficult it had become to cope with the disease: “I am tired. Because I live with severe emphysema, much of my time and energy are devoted to breathing, i.e., consciously exhaling CO2 because my lungs can no longer do so automatically.”

In that post, his last public writing, Lester also reflected on his passion for teaching and discourse: “Thank you who helped create this space where ... people could address each other with caring and respect, where people enjoyed learning, this space which allowed me to do what I think I was born to do, which is teach.”

It was teaching that brought Lester to the Valley in 1971 when he joined the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a visiting lecturer. Eventually, he held a joint appointment as a professor in both the Afro-American studies and Judaic studies departments.

That came to a very public end in 1988 with the publication of “Lovesong: Becoming a Jew,” about Lester’s conversion to Judaism. He wrote that James Baldwin, who also had been on the UMass Afro-American studies faculty, made anti-Semitic remarks during a lecture on campus. Lester was denounced by Afro-American studies colleagues and, amid a national debate over the issues of academic freedom and censorship, he transferred to the department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies, where he taught until his retirement in 2003.

Lester later told The New York Times, “Is black identity so problematic that one is to be judged as an ‘anti-Negro Negro’ for being critical of Baldwin or Jesse Jackson? Having been involved in the civil rights movement, I didn’t fight against whites trying to limit and define me to turn around and have blacks try to limit and define me.”

That controversy was one of several that drew national attention and helped define Lester’s life. Just as importantly, his impact is measured by the appreciation of his wisdom in more private moments. On the night Lester died, Rabbi Justin David emailed members of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, where Lester “for a time served as a powerful ‘shalicah tzibbur,’ drawing on his rich bass voice to lead the community in hasidic niggunim, gospel melodies, and others he either adapted or composed himself.”

David continued, “Personally, Julius and his work were quite important in my life. At a formative time, I read his memoir ‘Lovesong’ in a single sitting late one Shabbat evening, captivated by his spiritual journey of discovery and joy. Though he treasured his privacy, Julius warmly welcomed me when I arrived in Northampton 16 years ago, and I was both delighted and truly humbled when this celebrity took me to lunch. I only wish I could have sought more opportunities to learn from him.”

Another friend, Marcie Sclove, recalled meeting Lester three decades ago when he was a customer at the restaurant she owned in downtown Amherst, Marcie’s Place. “We would have these great talks” at the counter, she said, adding that Lester had an impressive intellect and was a spiritual person who felt close to God.

Lester wrote between 40 to 50 books for adults and children, most of which focused on black American history and drew from his youth in the segregated South and his involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Thirteen photographs he took while working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi were displayed at the Smithsonian Institution. His photos have been in shows at Valley galleries, particularly the Robert Floyd Gallery & Learning Center in Southampton.

Lester’s final years were spent in Belchertown with his wife, Milan Sabatini. “I’m a monk at heart, I’m a solitary at heart. I really, really am,” he told Amherst Media in a recent interview. “Now I get to lead the life I want to have.”

That life will be remembered for Lester’s rich contributions to the intellectual and cultural fabric of American society.