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Pain Is a Teacher

As a Jewish and black writer, confronting evil is something that has been an element of my work since To Be A Slave (1969). Jewish and black children have experienced the world’s evil in their own flesh, and telling their stories may make it easier for children to have a context for the evils of today’s world.

Having grown up in the Midwest and the South during the forties and fifties books were my refuge against a society that seemed unremittingly hostile to my existence. The content of what I read was not great literature but comic books, true crime magazines with lurid photographs of murdered corpses, detective novels and Westerns. Looking back I understand that reading such material helped me emotionally mitigate the violence that was around me, violence I could not comprehend.

I think the notion that children could or should have been protected from the world’s evils was mistaken. No adult has that power. My parents could not protect me from segregation. What they could do and did do was show me how to negotiate it, when to confront it and when not. And they gave me a strong enough sense of self that I had the confidence to confront segregation.

Does anything in the Jewish tradition shape my thinking on these issues? I love Joseph whose father gave him such a strong sense of himself as a person and a Jew that he maintained his belief in Judaism even though he was by himself in an alien land.

I also love the idea that God needs us as much as we need God, that when God entered a covenantal relationship with the Jewish people, it became a reciprocal relationship, meaning God’s actions could be influenced and affected by ours as much as ours by God’s.

What are the redeeming things that make it possible for me to want to bring out a book that delivers some pain and sadness to a young reader? Pain is integral to being human. Pain is one of our teachers. Through pain we are given the opportunity to learn and relearn our essential humanity.

Julius Lester is Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His most recent young adult novel is When Dad Killed Mom (Harcourt 2002).