LOVESONG: Becoming a Jew

By Julius Lester

Henry Holt. 248 pp. $17.95

AFTER READING Julius Lester's stunning and strange autobiographical odyssey that begins with a black southern childhood in the '40s, continues through Fisk University, the Civil Rights Movement, the New York intellectual scene of the late '60s and pauses now at the end of this volume with Lester a 49-year-old professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I am hard pressed to say that I would like him if I knew him. I know that there is a lot about his politics that I do not like.

But I love his book and I love him for having written it.

Some people will argue that this book is of marginal value because Lester is too fortunate a man -- he has published 15 books, including stories for children, a study of W.E.B. Du Bois and this volume, and is a college professor -- for his story to reveal very much about the rest of us. Others will say that his experience -- becoming a Jew, twice married to white women -- is too bizarre, too different to tell anything about what it's really like to be black in America. I think that is nonsense. Lester is a black man and his story gives us a slice of America strained through a deeply sensitive and an enormously talented black spirit.

Beyond autobiography, Lester felt a compulsion to take a risk I couldn't even imagine imagining. The nature of the risk is suggested by an incident in which a Jewish woman -- a stranger -- came up to him and trivialized the long, halting, painful and profound journey of the soul that led to his conversion by saying sweetly, "Oh, you're like Sammy Davis Jr."

Why would a man do such a thing? Though Lester almost invites a reader to psychoanalyze him, I won't. I will simply note that his father, a man of the cloth, was the kind of man who filled up a lot of space. Julius Lester grew up with God around the house and he went to church every Sunday.

After he had been in college for a while, Lester told his father that he had figured out there was no God. The Rev. Lester told him to shut up about it and to keep on coming to church anyway. Of that period Lester writes: "The God of my father is dead, but instead of exulting in the freedom of defining my essence, I am surprised to find myself paralyzed by despair and depression. How do I live now that there is not a God?" Most college kids I knew shrugged off their childhood gods the way they stashed away their high school letter sweaters, but Julius Lester couldn't just decide there wasn't a god. He grew up with God in him.

He grew up with a lot of other things in him too, like the childhood memory of the terror of either humiliation or of unspeakable danger when his father pulled into gas stations on southern roads in the '40s looking for fuel for his car and relief for his passengers. He grew up with a mother who looked white and wouldn't talk about it, and with knowledge of his great-grandfather, Adolph Altschul, a Jew from Germany who married a slave woman.

After Fisk, Lester joined the civil rights movement, served on the central committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and wrote his first book, Look Out Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Momma. In the first of a number of startling revelations about his feelings about his blackness, Lester says that he experienced his most harmonious feeling in the movement not singing freedom songs in a church or relaxing in a roadhouse to jukebox blues, but alone one night on an outhouse seat under a southern sky. He later went to New York, wrote more books and somewhere along the way was married, had two children and went on the radio.

Lester had a talk show during the great 1968 New York showdown between Jews and blacks; the battle over community control of schools. He decided to air a poem written by a 15-year-old black pupil. Though the child's teacher told him he would be crazy to have the poem read, Lester thought it might shed some light on the problem. Upon hearing the angry poem, which contained such incendiary lines as: "Hey, Jew boy -- I wish you were dead," most Jews and a lot of other people thought it was anti-Semitic. A lot of the same people thought Julius Lester was anti-Semitic and some of them threatened his life. Incredibly, Lester writes that he was astonished that this caused a firestorm in New York about black anti-Semitism.

Though life, which included his writing and a "sensuous woman," was rich in those days, it was not enough. Lester felt spiritually empty and depressed. So he embarked on a spiritual quest to put holiness in his daily life. Over a summer, his journey took him to Wounded Knee, where he thought he had been spoken to by God; to Kentucky, where a farm family seemed holy because it valued the ordinary; to the Abbey of Gethsemani, where he read Thomas Merton and had his attention directed to God by Gregorian chants. BUT IT WAS not until 1979, when he began studying the Holocaust while preparing a course on blacks and Jews, that the powerful pull of his eventual spiritual destination began to assert itself. After many more months of study and reflection -- and a few months after his father's death -- Lester finally decided to convert to Judaism. His decision here was not an ordinary one like, say, John Connally's decision to become a Republican in the early '70s. It appears that a combination of his horror at the Holocaust, his powerful identification with his Jewish ancestors and his awe at the history of the Jewish people blended with his compelling religious needs to lead Lester almost inevitably into Jewishness. By his account, he has found spiritual bliss.

In my view, there are some dark political and personal way stations on this trip. Lester dispatches the movement in which Negroes embraced their blackness by giving it the narrowest possible frame and then dismissing it. He describes brilliantly the troubling personal and social tasks millions of blacks have faced and rejects them for himself. Thus he writes:

"What do you want? I ask myself again, and enraged, I shout back: I want not to live with the spirits of my slave ancestors needing me to sing the song they couldn't sing. I want not to have the spirits of all the black unborn telling me that I will be their ancestor and that the stone I hew from the mountain and carve into a step will enable them to move on up just a little bit higher."

Yet, when he becomes a Jew, Lester ardently embraces the Jewish past and envisons a Jewish future that includes himself living out his days in reclusive devotion in Israel. And he embraces the politics of the most fervent supporters of israel by viewing complex multifaceted questions as if they had only one side. In 1979 he wrote a piece for The Village Voice attacking blacks who blamed Jews for Andrew Young's departure from his post as ambassador to the United Nations. He says he was surprised when many blacks were enraged at the piece and some colleagues stopped speaking to him. After Israel invaded Lebanon, he defends the bombing of West Beirut by remembering the Holocaust and arguing that Jews need to defend themselves.

There are other issues. Lester is staunchly anti-abortion. He felt at one point that he had to save his son from the "tyranny of femninism" and declared on the death of his father ("He was father and mother to me") that he was no longer a son, though his mother was still alive. While he gives a sharply edged picture of his oldest son (to whom this book is dedicated) his daughter appears as only a blur.

During the course of his conversion, though Lester was aware that the psychic separation it necessitated was causing his wife intense pain, he persevered. He also knew that his son was deeply hurt because his devotions put a distance between them. What impact this conversion had on his daughter -- if any -- is not recorded. In fairness, in the end, after the most arduous part of his journey has ended, Lester becomes better able to see other people and to sense their needs. There is a strong indication that spiritual peace softened this man who, up to then, had treasured the fact that there was a cold, hard place deep inside himself no one could reach.

In the end, it does not matter much that I do not like Julius Lester's politics or that I am dismayed by his attitude toward his blackness. Those are issues for a different arena. What Lester has accomplished here is to detail the hard road traveled by one black man's soul under the double weights of American culture and Western history and to dramatize some of the perils of the journey. In spite of himself, he has hewed a stone from the mountain and carved a step that though surely strange, is also elegant. ::

Roger Wilkins is Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at George Mason University and senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.