january / february 2007:
Not the Face in the Mirror
An Interview with Julius Lester
Text by Brad Pilcher | Photo by Ben Barnhart
When I first met with my rabbi to begin a course of study towards conversion, one of the books he slipped into my hands was Lovesong by Julius Lester. The son of a black Methodist minister, Lester would come of age in the South before the Civil Rights movement, but he would also begin a long journey from his family’s piano (on which he would play Kol Nidrei) to a Jewish conversion in the early 1980s. I remember reading Lester’s journey as I proceeded with my own. Indeed, I have re-read it many times over the course of my walk in the Jewish faith. More than any other, this was the book that shepherded me towards the covenant, and I always felt it was ironic that the story of a black man my father’s age would touch me more than those of other white converts.
When we conceived of doing an entire issue focusing on black Jews it seemed obvious that I should seek to include Julius Lester in that conversation. Over the course of a few weeks, I sent along questions and he passed back answers. I realize now that I began the interview focusing on Lester as an overtly black Jew with those two identities balancing against each other. Once again, it was his thoughtful words that helped guide me to a better understanding. I now see him as a man who “encompasses multitudes,” not just black or Jewish, but this and much more. Lester refers to individuals as “one syllable in God’s infinite vocabulary.” It is a lesson that, as one who lived through the Civil Rights movement and a Jewish convert, he is uniquely qualified to teach.
Q: First, I wanted to start (where else) on page 1 of your book, Lovesong. You talk about finding “the name by which God knows you” so that “you will know who you are.” You go through “Father, Writer, Teacher” until you finally uncover your Hebrew name, and you present it as a sort of unifying force between your true self and your various identities. I was surprised when you wrote, “I am no longer deceived by the black face which stares at me from the mirror. I am a Jew.” I was wondering if you could talk about that deception. It seems like a particularly harsh word.
A: Yes, I was aware when I wrote that sentence that it sounded harsh. I tried to soften it but there was no other way to express it. We generally tend to identify ourselves with what we see in the mirror — race and gender, principally. But these were determined by the “accident” of sperm integrating with egg. Why then do we put so much value on those aspects of ourselves over which we have no control? I’ve always been reluctant to say to somebody, “You have beautiful eyes.” The person did nothing to acquire such eyes, and yet, people on the receiving end of such a compliment invariably smile, grin, are very pleased, and say thank you. What I do say is, “I like your eyes,” and such a comment creates a relationship between me and that person. We live in a society in which incredible value is placed on genetic “gifts”. We identify ourselves on the basis of these genetic “gifts”. “I’m black. I’m white. I’m Asian.” So, the sentence was designed to shock the reader. I would like the reader to look in the mirror and see that his or her identity is not bound to the face that stares back.
One of the comments I have gotten from born Jews, which I never found funny, was “Gee, you don’t look Jewish.” As if how I look reveals anything about me.
But there is a reality to that face that stares back at me from the mirror. That face represents my social identity, but my social identity is not my soul’s identity. Which is not to say that social identity and the soul’s identity cannot be one. The social and soul identities of Chasidic Jews are obvious with their way of dressing. Blacks who change their names to African ones and wear African-style clothing are making their social and soul identities one.
So I am not criticizing a union of social and soul identity. And, if I wore a kippah in public I would change, or at least modify, my social identity. But I find having a social identity — or at least identifying with that social identity — limits my capacity for spiritual growth. And I hasten to add, this is not to imply that those who do identify with their social identities are limiting their capacity to grow spiritually. That is not necessarily so.
Q: I want to sort of continue with the subject of your social and soul identities. About growing up in the South and facing racism you wrote, “I chose invisibility and walked as if I did not occupy my body… Nothing could mitigate the ontological terror of nonexistence, the unending trauma of being damned in the flesh.” I’d be curious to hear how those wounds of your social identity were addressed by the rise of your soul identity as a Jew.
A: Because the “invisibility” had to do with social identity, becoming Jewish could not change that unless I wore a kippah publicly which I do not. The “invisibility” was a child’s response, which is not to denigrate it in any way. I grew up, the Civil Rights movement happened and I was part of it and becoming a fairly well-known published writer all combined in different ways to “mitigate the ontological terror of non-existence.”
Lester was involved in a controversial clash between the United Federation of Teachers and local school board leaders in New York City that led to a strike by UFT members. The strike was inflamed into a black-Jewish dispute when leaders of the UFT began employing racially charged language and leveling veiled accusations of anti-Semitism. As the host of a local radio show on WBAI, Lester had a teacher on his program and encouraged him to read several poems written by students. One of them was patently anti-Semitic and brought a massive backlash against Lester himself. The Jewish Defense League protested outside the radio station and demanded his ouster. He wrote about the incident extensively in the book, and I decided to ask him about the controversy.
Q: There is a passage where you write, “They needed to know that if they wanted blacks to care about Jewish suffering, they had to care about black suffering. As crude and obscene as the poem was, I heard in it an excruciating paroxysm of pain. It was the pain expressed as anger at Jews, many of whom found identity by borrowing suffering from the Holocaust while remaining blithely blind to the suffering of black people around them…” That’s a stinging, though not altogether inaccurate, indictment of the Jewish community. I’m curious what your perspective is some four decades after the fact.
A: Being Jewish now I have more knowledge of the differences between various groups of Jews which makes the answer to your question more complicated. Also, the only Jews I had contact with at the time of the radio show were those in the greater metropolitan New York area. I’m not sure one should generalize about Jews based solely on what takes place in New York. Also, in the late sixties, books and films about the Holocaust were just beginning to occupy more of a place in the consciousness of American Jews. Now the Holocaust is a more integral part of the Jewish psyche. Many American Jews have been responsive to appeals for aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the sufferings of Somalis, and the like. What I said in 1969 would not be an entirely accurate description of American Jews today.
However, in one regard, my words then might still contain a truth. In 1991, I went to Israel for the first time. As I walked around Jerusalem, I saw Arabs being stopped by Israeli soldiers and being asked for identity cards and being searched. I saw Arabs driving out of Jerusalem each evening in old, dusty cars that reminded me of blacks in the South in the forties and fifties going home after a day of laboring for white people. I found myself identifying with both Israelis and Arabs. I had been stopped on the street by white policemen and had to justify my presence in a certain neighborhood. In the Arabs I certainly saw the blacks of the rural South of the 1940s and 1950s. And, on the other hand, I understood and empathized with the Israeli need for security. It would have been irresponsible if Israeli soldiers had not stopped Arabs and searched them. The only response that seemed appropriate to me was not to choose one side over the other but to hold within me, in equal measure, the pain of Israelis and Arabs.
When I returned and gave a talk about my trip and ended by saying essentially what I wrote above, I was verbally attacked by some Jews. It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that holding the pain of my enemy close to my heart does not stop me from defending my life. Holding the pain of my enemy close to my heart helps me preserve my humanity. In the Torah we are told to not wrong or oppress the stranger, because we know what it is like to be a stranger. That admonition is repeated more than 20 times. To dehumanize the enemy is to dehumanize ourselves.
Until Arabs and Jews regard as sacred the pain of the other, there will be no peace.
Q: I wanted to ask what your opinion is on the state of black-Jewish relations today. The passage, “if they wanted blacks to care about Jewish suffering, they had to care about black suffering” seemed to just entirely embody the impasse between America’s blacks and Jews.
A: I have no idea what the state of black-Jewish relations are today, or rather, I don’t think they exist. In the many years I traveled around the country speaking about these relations, I found that younger generations of blacks had no idea what I was talking about. To them, Jews were white people, and young blacks did not understand why they were supposed to have some affinity with Jews. Black-Jewish relations are of significance to those of my generation; to younger blacks, they don’t matter.
I would add, in the many talks I gave on this issue, I always made a point of telling Jewish groups that instead of focusing on black-Jewish relations, Jews should be working to establish coalitions with Hispanics who were on their way to displacing blacks from their status as our countries largest racial minority. And I would say the same things to blacks. Well, that day has arrived, and we are beginning to see tensions between blacks and Hispanics.
Q: The New York Post ran an article about the incident in 1969, and it quoted you as saying, “‘The sad thing to me is that I feel the UFT is responsible for quite a bit of the feeling that exists among young blacks now in terms of Jews,’ Lester said. He said the teachers’ union had adopted a position that anyone who opposed them was anti-Semitic.” It paraphrases you at the end, so I don’t know exactly what you said, but I’m interested in your thoughts today on the issue of anti-Semitism as a response to criticism in the Jewish community.
A: In general, the Jewish response to criticism is nuanced. There is a difference between someone being critical of Israel’s actions and criticizing Israel’s existence. I think Jews know the difference and respond accordingly. Indeed, if there were Arabs who were as openly critical of Hamas or Hezbollah as there are Jews who are critical of Jewish fanatics, the situation in the Middle East might be different.
The problem is that non-Jews think they understand anti-Semitism, and all too often they don’t. And when Jews tell them that something they said was anti-Semitic, they accuse us of trying to stifle criticism.
I’ve always found it interesting that the people who listened to my radio show after the poem was read, who listened to the numerous phone calls I took, who listened to me engage listeners in difficult conversations about racism and anti-Semitism, understood what I was doing, and none of them accused me of being anti-Semitic. It was the people who read about my show in the New York Times who accused me of being an anti-Semite. The UFT used the poem incident and me for their own political ends.
Can Jews be manipulated around the issue of anti-Semitism? Yes. Are there Jews who find their Jewish identity in fighting against anti-Semitism, real and imagined? Yes. And the same can be said of blacks in relationship to racism.
Q: This answer raises another question, because it poses the dilemma of how to move beyond this cycle of recrimination. If it is true that non-Jews cannot understand anti-Semitism fully and perhaps that non-blacks cannot understand the suffering of blacks, then how do we manage to have a dialogue?
A: I don’t accept the premise that seems to be conventional wisdom these days that only blacks can understand the black experience, women their experience, Native Americans their experience, and on and on. One of the lovely, very touching experiences of the early sixties was young whites and young blacks meeting for the first time, curious as to what it was like to be the other, and each eager to show the other what their lives were like.
However, I want to go a step farther. Even if people from different ethnicities/races/genders cannot understand each other, nothing keeps them from respecting each other and accepting each other. One of my former wives said to me once, “I don’t understand you.” I looked at her and said, “I don’t understand myself. Why do you think you should be able to? Do you have to understand me to love me?”
One of the failures of modern living is the failure to use our imaginations. And it does not require much effort to imagine what it must feel like to hurt. But instead of using our imaginations, instead of putting ourselves inside someone else’s experience, we argue with that person about his or her experience. We do not want to make the effort to listen to someone talk about his or her experience without arguing with that person. The key to any kind of dialogue is not talking but listening, listening not only with one’s ears but with one’s heart.
Acts of compassion bring more people together and are more lasting than understanding, and listening with one’s heart is an act of compassion.
Q: One of the interesting things you mentioned when you wrote about the incident is how “my strongest supporters during these weeks are also Jews” and “Ironically, I [did] not receive one expression of support from blacks.” I know this is a bit of a general way to ask the question, but I was wondering if you could just talk about that imbalance of support.
A: In 1969, there was more space in the Jewish community for different ideas, even opposing ideas. That was much less true of blacks in 1969. The tolerance for varying ideas that existed in the black community in the early and mid-sixties was waning by the end of the decade as black nationalism became the abiding ideology. By 1969 many blacks did not consider me “black” because I was not a nationalist. Black is a political definition, not a racial designation, and so, after I converted, there were many blacks who told me that I was no longer black, that a person could not be black and Jewish. That attitude has waned considerably in the past ten years, and now I find many more blacks who are curious about Judaism, blacks who are interested in conversion seeking me out, and just blacks who tell me they are happy I found a spiritual home.
An observation: As you can imagine, I get asked a lot about the poem incident. I never get asked about the essay I wrote in 1979 when Andrew Young was forced to resign as U.N. ambassador because he held a secret meeting with the PLO, which was against U.S. foreign policy. Blacks attacked Jews for being racist and being responsible for Young’s dismissal. I wrote an essay accusing blacks of anti-Semitism and caught hell from blacks, had my life threatened, etc. And yet, I have no doubt that in my obituary there will be a mention of the anti-Semitic poem incident and not what I wrote in 1979. What no one seems to grasp is that the two are the same for me in that in 1969 I thought Jews were being racist and said so. In 1979 I thought blacks were being racist and said so. In my mind these controversies were never about black-Jewish relations; they were about being true to myself and speaking out against racism. “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt.” I didn’t know that verse in 1969 or 1979, but I knew what it was like to be oppressed, to be a stranger in my own land. That was what motivated me in 1969 and what motivated me in 1979. People have said that during that ten year period I changed. I didn’t. The Julius Lester of WBAI in 1969 was the Julius Lester in 1979 who wrote “The Uses of Suffering” in the Village Voice.
Q: I was going to ask you to compare the black and Jewish responses to your essay in 1979 with the responses to the poem incident in 1969, but it occurs to me after your answer to this last question that it is probably the wrong question. Your answers seem to indicate that you see your life less about being an African American or being a Jew and more about being Julius Lester, who is both African American and a Jew. I admit, I didn’t expect that.
A: Since the sixties, we are living in an era in which collective identity is increasingly substituted for personal identity. Thus, “black” ceases to be a racial identification and becomes a political definition, which has enabled some blacks to say that I am not black. Which is absurd, but not if blackness is a political definition. I get asked by Jews if I feel “more Jewish than black, or vice-versa,” which is also an absurdity. People seem to expect that because I am black and Jewish, I live in a state of angst. I don’t. My father raised me with a strong sense of myself as an individual, and admonished me many times not to follow “the crowd,” to be “your own person.” That made sense to me, and it is how I have lived. I have many identities, as we all do. I am Julius Lester and, since Whitman said it better than anyone, “I encompass multitudes,” and I do not choose to make one paramount at the expense of the others. If I were to choose to make one of my collective identities, either black or Jewish, primary and suppress all else that I am, I would be guilty of denying the marvelous and ultimate mystery which a life is. And if I turn away from the mystery that I am, I cannot see the marvelous mystery that you are. Thus, I will relate to you as if your entire being is expressed by your collective identity — black, Jew, Christian, Muslim — and deny that you as an individual are sacred, one syllable in God’s infinite vocabulary.
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