I never met Julius Lester in person. All our contacts were in reading each others writings. I first read about his conversion in an article he wrote in 1984. I wrote to him that he was a perfect example of a gilgul conversion as described in my 1983 book God, Sex and Kabbalah. He in turn quoted my explanation of gilgul conversion in his 1988 autobiography Lovesong (216). I wish I had had the opportunity to meet him in person.
Julius Lester was an African-American scholar and political activist, whose conversion to Judaism in 1982 came as a shock to those who only remembered his involvement in a racially charged school strike in New York’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood in 1968.
Julius Lester died January 18, 2018 at age 79. He was an award-winning author of 43 books and articles in The New York Times and the Village Voice. A faculty member at the University of Massachusetts since 1971, he taught courses in three departments – Judaic studies, English and history. In 1994, Lester’s novel about the civil rights movement, “And All Our Wounds Forgiven,” was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
The son of a minister, Lester was 7 when he learned that his maternal great-grandfather was a German Jewish immigrant named Adolph Altschul, who had married a freed slave named Maggie Carson. He described that as the beginning of a very long journey that led to his becoming a Jew by choice in 1982, at age 44.
He is a good example of a gilgul—a reincarnated Jewish soul that returns to the Jewish people. A mystical 14th century Jewish Kabbalistic teaching found in Sefer HaPliyah, says that people who feel a powerful attraction to Jewish things and Jewish people, have Jewish souls that are reincarnations (gilgulim) of one of their own Jewish ancestors from 3-7 generations in the past.
Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Kabbalah does not teach that reincarnation (gilgul) occurs over the course of millions of years to millions of different sentient species. Kabbalah says only the souls of self conscious moral creatures like human beings do reincarnate; but they reincarnate only when they have not yet fulfilled the purpose of their creation.
Since Judaism is an optimistic religion, most Kabbalists teach that most people can accomplish their life’s purpose in one or two lifetimes. A few souls may take 3-5 lifetimes or more. The bright souls of great religious figures like Moses or Miriam can turn into dozens of sparks that can each reincarnate several times.
The tragic souls of Jews whose children have been cut off from the Jewish people, either through assimilation or forced conversion to another religion, will reincarnate as one of their own no longer Jewish descendants. Some of these souls will seek to return to the Jewish people in later generations.
A majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people have Jewish souls from one of their own ancestors. Thus, the Jewish mystical tradition, claims that the souls of most converts to Judaism are the reincarnated souls of Jews in previous generations that were cut off from the Jewish people.
Through conversion to Judaism they are coming home. Sometimes these souls are descendants of Jews who were part of whole communities that were cut off, like the Marranos or European Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust and then Communist oppression. Other times they are descendants of individual Jews who married out and did not raise their children as faithful Jews.
As Julius Lester wrote in a 2015 essay: “Who am I? There are not enough words to describe who am I, who any of us are, because we all carry within us traces of lives going back 10,000 years and more. What a shame that there are those who would reduce the wonder of being human to such a narrow and restrictive a concept as race,”.
For 10 years he served as lay religious leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.