The Autobiography of God, a novel by Julius Lester (St. Martin’s Press), 245 pages

Julius Lester, in his uniquely funny and very serious novel, The Autobiography of God, is both entertaining and enlightening.

As a child in a small rural town in the American Midwest of the 1950s, I had only the vaguest sense of ethnic or religious differences. Almost everyone was of northern European descent and Protestant. There were a few Catholics and a couple black families in town. One older couple lived two blocks away from our home. My mother, who was from the South, told me they went to a black church on the edge of town. She thought people did a lot of singing and shaking there.

I understood that Jesus was a Jew, but that Christianity had moved away from Judaism. I thought of Judaism in terms of “Old Testament” religion which prophesied a messiah whom Christians recognize as Jesus but whom Jews believe has not yet come. I thought of the Holy Land in terms of Bible stories and Hollywood spectaculars.

I had a general picture of the Nazi attempt to slaughter all the Jews during WW II, and that those who survived in Europe were somehow re-settled to Israel, formerly Palestine. I knew one Jewish family and wondered about them. I had been in their home and other than not having Christmas, they didn’t appear to be different. I heard references to Jews being tough businessmen, which to me sounded complimentary.

During the late ’60s in college, particularly related to the civil rights movement, I had a couple good friends who were African American. I was very aware of how different their backgrounds were from mine, even those who came from privileged families. I felt that we whites had to make it up to blacks for having enslaved so many of their ancestors and the continuing disparity of opportunity due to racial discrimination.

Some of my friends were Jewish. I felt anti-Semitism was very wrong, but that Israel had been created and was being maintained in a way which was unfair to Palestinians. I believed the problems in the Middle East couldn’t be solved until the Palestinians and Israelis worked things out.

Over the years I’ve become much more aware of the complexity of relationships between religious and ethnic communities. But not until I read The Autobiography of God, did I appreciate the beauty and significance of the Judaic Calendar and kosher diet. The author, Julius Lester, an African American Jew, writes this “autobiography” in the voice of Rebecca Nachman, a lame, female rabbi. The victim of a horrendous accident while a child, she experienced the accident as a betrayal by the God who could part the Red Sea but chose not to stop the Nazis.

Lester, three of whose great-grandparents were slaves, has a wickedly enticing sense of humor and skill with plot and narrative. An eclectic scholar, professor, social activist and lay religious leader of Beth-El Synagogue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, he has written more than 25 books on subjects ranging from music and photography to Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama. Also the descendant of Jews, he wrote a profound memoir about his spiritual journey into Judaism called Becoming A Jew. This is his first adult fiction in a decade.

The Autobiography of God is wonderfully paced. We accompany Rabbi Rebecca Nachman, child of Holocaust survivors, through her carefully considered rabbinical rhythms and reflections. In the first paragraph she arrives home from her counselor’s job at John Brown College in Vermont. She knows that the Torah scroll has arrived. Stolen by the Nazis, it had been held by the Brits after the war until a congregation would call for it. She had ordered it five years earlier, at a time when a small group was meeting in her home for Shabbat services. She does not know that the dead Jews of Czechowa accompany the scroll. She does understand the importance of praying with the dead.

Saul, professor in the computer department, and Patric, head of the religion department, had urged her to order the scroll. She had felt there was no need for it now. Considering herself a failed rabbi after giving up her role as leader of a synagogue in New Jersey, Rebecca tells herself she is content in her present career. She will not give in to Patric’s pressure to teach, nor his romantic interest in her. Clearly an outsider, and yet obviously respected, she has ordered her life in a way she believes is sustainable, one which allows her to survive.

The rest of the story is a complex, multi-layered exploration of self and other, ethnicity and religion, anger at God and at humanity, yet acceptance. At the same time, The Autobiography of God is easy to read, inspirational, a ghost story, a murder mystery and a redemption tale. I won’t spoil the twists by telling you more.

In some ways Rabbi Rebecca Nachman’s limp, the result of the catastrophic childhood injury, defines her life. At the same time, however, she has used that wound — which marks her as the “other”— as a retort for the refinement of her strength and beauty.

Through the alchemy of his skills as a writer and his experiences as a man, Julius Lester expresses the profound wisdom of the Jews who have embraced their religion in a way which binds them back to roots full of pain, yes, but profoundly nurturing to the beauty and peace of the soul.

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Jay Bremyer

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