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A Black Preacher's Son Chooses the Chosen People : LOVESONG Becoming a Jew by Julius Lester (Henry Holt: $16.95; 247 pp., illustrated)

January 31, 1988|Richard Gilman | Gilman teaches at the Yale School of Drama. His " Faith Sex Mystery, " a memoir of his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, will be published in paperback by Penguin in February

When Julius Lester was about to take the final step toward becoming a Jew, he tells us in this often-affecting memoir, he found himself wishing he "knew another convert, a black one, but (didn't) know Sammy Davis' phone number." Though they surely exist, I too can't think of another black who has turned Jewish, and not very many white Protestants or Catholics either. The usual movement is the other round--Jews becoming Christians--or Buddhists, for that matter. Indeed the popular notion is that Judaism neither proselytizes nor is friendly to those who wish to join.

In Lester's case, at least, this wasn't true. Jews supported him throughout, the opposition to his conversion coming from within, from the pressures of his Methodist background (his father was a prominent minister) and his sense of the incongruity of adopting a religion so largely defined, by non-Jews at any rate, as an ethnic reality more than a creedal one.

Lester's central story is of his movement from nominal Protestantism, through a flirtation with Catholicism and an interest in American Indian religions, to the synagogue he was formally received into at age 43, on Jan. 3, 1983. At the same time, it's necessarily the story of his public life and, above all, his sense of self, particularly of being black. From his childhood in Kansas, through college, to his emergence as a writer and, a description he says "embarrasses" him, a '60s "social activist," his life reveals qualities that seem to me to be common to most converts: dissatisfaction with one's inherited beliefs, a hunger for something "absolute," willingness to risk extreme spiritual change.

Lester's first book, and still his best known one, was called "Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon Get Your Mama!" It immediately turned him into a bogie-man for whites, though he says it was part put-on, part straightforward explication of black consciousness. In any case, he found himself caught up in controversy, which later deepened as blacks and Jews began to quarrel. Ironically, in the light of subsequent events, Lester for a time had a reputation as an anti-Semite, just as he would later unfairly be thought a traitor to blacks.

His attraction to Judaism had an understandable origin, his discovery as a youth that he had a Jewish great-grandfather, a 19th-Century German immigrant named Altschul who had married a former slave. Later he read about the Holocaust, learning from the novel "Exodus" "for the first time about the 6 million Jews killed during my childhood." "Blacks," he writes of this new awareness, "are not the only people . . . who must ponder . . . the meaning of meaningless suffering." Soon he begins to wonder "why . . . I rage and mourn for murdered European Jews as I have never done for my own people."

Whatever lay behind that, he did mourn, and read, thought, learned and, finally, decided. His progress toward conversion was a steady gain in love, he tells us. "Judaism," he writes, "is not a concept; it is not a system of beliefs. It is a doing which can be grasped only by the heart." That this is true, or may be, is both the book's strength and its weakness; love conquers all, as an old Latin apothegm has it, but love is notoriously difficult to describe or account for. Thus when Lester tells us, "I am in love with Judaism, with being a Jew," we're moved but not really enlightened. When he tells us that he's enthusiastically adopted many Jewish practices, including baking hallah every Friday, we approve but aren't quite sure whether or not this is simply a change in life style.

Lester writes eloquently at times, in a pompous, pseudo-lyrical vein at others. He says of playing the guitar that "I play and beauty becomes pain and then beauty again and in a half-step is inverted into pain once more until beauty and pain wrap around each other like the braids of a girl's hair, and beauty and pain become a piercing that holds me pinioned and I feel old."

But such purple prose doesn't seriously detract from the book's merits. To tell the story of one's conversion is likely to be a painfully intimate act, and Lester has handled it well. He writes movingly about the death of his father and about his relations with his own sons. He says that the purpose of Judaism is to "make holy the ordinary, find the mystical in the mundane," and we see him struggling to achieve this. A spiritual journey such as Lester's demands our respect.

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