Like many black intellectuals of his generation, Julius Lester went searching for his roots. Unlike the vast majority, he found them in a most extraordinary place.
A professor in the department of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Lester converted to Judaism in 1983. A metaphysical prodigal son, Lester would say he simply came home—after a hazardous journey, at that.
The intellectual odyssey of this minister's son started in the 1940's South, when as a child he discovered that one of his great-grandfathers, named Altschul, was a German Jewish immigrant who married an ex-slave.
As a boy, Lester recalls playing the melody to the Kol Nidre on a piano, ignorant of its significance but drawn to its haunting refrain. For his 12th Christmas, his mother presented him with a volume of Shakespeare's plays. Reading "The Merchant of Venice," he identified with Shylock.
"Yet in Shylock, I see myself as I do not in Du Bois, Johnson, Langston Hughes, Robeson or any other black figure. Is it because they are models of success and I need a model of suffering, someone to reflect a child's pain and confusion at being condemned because of the race into which I was born, someone whose anger at outrageous injustice gives me permission to be angry and through that anger to defend my soul? Or is it simply that through Shylock I learn that blacks are not...