Relations among Jews, blacks are improving, professor says

Julius Lester, who was quoted two years ago as saying that black-Jewish relationships had reached a nadir, has evidently changed his mind.

The black professor of Jewish studies at the University of Massachusetts, in a lecture March 4 at the University of San Francisco, offered a rosy, if cursory, treatment of black-Jewish relationships, saying that they “showed marked improvement.”

Black-Jewish dynamics are “better than ever,” and the influence of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan is in decline, Lester said.

“The media has contributed to a lot of the hype surrounding Farrakhan. Farrakhan does not speak for the majority of black citizenry,” he said.

Instead of dwelling on black-Jewish relationships, Lester used the time to discuss his personal spiritual odyssey.

During the lecture, billed as a “discussion of black-Jewish relationships” and sponsored by the Swig Judaic Studies program, Lester told the predominantly white audience of about 100 how his race and religion formed complementary parts of his soul.

“Being black tells me who I am politically and socially,” Lester said. “Being Jewish tells me who I am before God.”

Lester’s ancestors in the pre-Civil War South include both freed slaves and immigrant Jewish peddlers. This mixed heritage, Lester explained, comes out when he expresses himself.

“When I sing, I’m channeling both Muddy Waters and ancient Yiddish folk singers.”

Lester’s foray into Judaism followed earlier ones into Hinduism, Native American religions and mystical Catholicism. Lester said his first look at Judaism was partially spurred by his interest in the Old Testament, and partially due to the fact that he “didn’t identify with Jesus.”

After immersing himself in Holocaust literature for over a year, Lester emerged in 1979 with a new sense of purpose, a new religion and a new name.

“After my conversion to Judaism, I selected the name Jacob, because Jacob had struggles with God and women,” Lester said, adding, “it was something I could relate to.”

During the question-and-answer period, Lester fielded queries of a personal, rather than political, nature. He told the audience that he found nothing unusual in being a black Jew, since “being a Jew is something that one chooses.”

Asked if he felt any ostracism from either of the two communities, Lester said black anti-Semitism is on the wane, and that Jewish racism is negligible.

“When I walk into a synagogue I pray in Hebrew, I sing in Hebrew, I read from the Torah. And I can make knishes. So,” he told a tittering audience, “I have as much claim as anyone else to being a Jew.”

As for “Who is a Jew?” Lester said that the question will be answered in religious terms, not cultural ones. “There is a nostalgia for a shtetl culture that no longer exists,” he said. “The ancient ways and customs have disappeared as more and more Jews move to the suburbs. This is precisely why being a Jew will be defined by one’s relationship to God.”

Lester concluded by singing “Oseh Shalom,” gripping the podium, swaying back and forth and belting out ancient Hebrew verses in a silky baritone that would do his local cantor and the Rev. Al Green proud.

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