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Author, activist Jewish convert Julius Lester dies at 78

Last Updated Jan 19, 2018 at 12:00 pm MDT

BELCHERTOWN, Mass. – Julius Lester, an author, musician, civil rights activist and university professor who made a late-life conversion to Judaism, has died. He was 78.

Lester’s daughter, Lian Amaris, told The Associated Press on Friday that her father died Thursday.

“Julius has passed peacefully, surrounded by family,” she posted on her father’s Facebook page.

She did not give a cause of death, but Lester had written in his last public post on Facebook on Jan. 3 about his struggles with severe emphysema.

Lester, who lived in Belchertown, was a professor of both black studies and Jewish studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for more than 30 years before retiring in 2003.

“UMass Amherst is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of professor Julius Lester, who enriched our university community and the world as a teacher, scholar and writer,” a university spokesman said in a statement. “His legacy includes being a recipient of the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award as well as the Chancellor’s Medal, a campus honour bestowed on individuals who have rendered exemplary and extraordinary service to the university.”

The St. Louis, Missouri-born son of a Methodist minister had long known he had a Jewish ancestor and converted to Judaism in the early 1980s, chronicling his journey in the book “Lovesong: Becoming a Jew.”

He wrote more than 40 books, including non-fiction, adult novels and children’s books, often confronting slavery and racism.

“The need to know more about my individual past led me to begin studying slavery, and once I did, my interest grew and I became intrigued by the challenge of trying to imagine what it was like to have been a slave,” he once wrote in an online biography.

One of his earliest books, co-written by folk singer Pete Seeger, was “The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly,” published in 1965.

Before his career in academia, he recorded two albums of original music, his photographs of the civil rights movement were included in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, and he hosted radio and television talk shows in New York City.

Known as an intensely private person, Lester continued to share his thoughts after retirement on Facebook, where he had about 3,000 followers.

“Again, I am so grateful to all of you who shared so much wonderful energy with me, indeed who lavished wonderful energy on me,” he wrote in his last Facebook post.

He is survived by his wife and five children.

Funeral arrangements are pending.