Remembering Julius Lester

Julius Lester (January 27, 1939 – January 18, 2018) was one of my favorite friends. We became pen pals in 1985 or 86 when I wrote him a letter about his newly published novel Dear Lord Do Remember Me, not knowing that this would open a conversation spanning many years. The book (loosely based upon the life of his minister father) was profoundly meaningful to me as a rabbi-in-training. I was overjoyed to finally meet in person a couple years later, when Julius visited Philadelphia to speak at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College about his book Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. While sharing a meal, we discovered that we were both born on the same day of the year (January 27), sparking a practice—that lasted until recently–of writing or calling that day.

I confessed that Dear Lord wasn’t actually my first exposure to his work. I had listened to Julius’s show on WBAI Pacifica Radio when I was a teenager, during which time I had also read his early books (Look Out Whitey…To Be a SlaveBlack Folktales, and others). I still have some of those Grove paperbacks on my bookshelf. Many years later, we discussed that period of his career in greater depth, but the truth is that Julius’s ideas, and his gutsy way of fighting for the freedom of expression have touched my life for fifty years.

Over the years of our friendship, Julius and I corresponded, chatting over the phone, and met up when I was in Massachusetts. Our conversations spanned Jewish identity, Black history, theology, academic politics, writing, becoming a parent, and how to be an effective religious service leader. His magnificent gifts as a writer and story teller were exceeded only by the masterful way he projected his beautifully resonant deep singing voice when he led prayer. Hearing him sing was always a highlight of the annual Conference on Judaism in Rural New England during the 1990s. The congregation he served in St. Johnsbury, Vermont was graced by that beautiful voice, his thoughtful words (at times we discussed our respective sermonic ideas), and loving presence from the pulpit. Julius very much wanted me to succeed him there when he could no longer lead High Holy Days, and I know how disappointed he was when I had to decline; I sincerely regret not fulfilling his wish.

One of my favorite memories of Julius dates to the time when he and my daughter met. Allison was quite young at the time. She loved Julius’s re-casting of the B’rer Rabbit tales (he strove, very successfully, I believe, to reclaim their folk core, while freeing them of their racist baggage). Yet, wishing that some of the characters were female, Allison asked Julius whether he would introduce B’rer Sister into future stories. From that time onward, Julius referred to Allison as B’rer Sister Allison.* Years later, when Julius lovingly inquired about Allie’s recovery from a major auto accident, he revised her nickname to “Sister Rabbit.” This became, for him, her permanent nickname. I will never forget how much Julius’s support meant to me during that period, and following my father’s death.

I have always loved and admired Julius Lester. I cannot imagine January 27 as anything but our joint birthday. He has been the favorite pen pal of my life, and his friendship has been one I’ve most cherished. His humor, insight, and kind spirit will live on through his many books and his wondrous photographs. May his memory be a blessing.

*Addendum (January 21, 2018): I had not remembered, when writing this remembrance, that Julius sent Allison a copy of his newly published “Sam and the Tiger” (1996) as a sixth birthday present. Here is his inscription: “To my friend, Brer Sister Allison – Brer Rabbit came by my house a few days ago + he said, ‘Bet you didn’t know my buddy, Brer Sister Allison, is going to have a birthday soon.’ ‘I didn’t know that,’ I responded. ‘You best be sending her a book or I’ll eat up all your carrots.’ ‘I don’t have any carrots,’ I answered. Brer Rabbit chuckled. ‘well, maybe not anymore.’ Both Brer Rabbit and I wish you a very, very, very, very HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Your friends, Julius / Brer Rabbit.”

 

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~ by bobgluck on January 18, 2018.

3 Responses to “Remembering Julius Lester”

  1. Beautiful Bob, thank you. I am so very sorry for your loss. MGJ

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Sad to lose this great figure.

    Howard

  3. Thank you for sharing your wonderful friendship stories of Julius Lester. I happened upon his facebook page and requested his friending me. He did., and I have been tremendously-blessed ever since. I am saddened by his demise and will miss him dearly but, grateful for the time we shared on the book. Thank you again Bob.

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