Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester
I converted to Judaism at the end of December, 1982. The story of the why of my conversion is in my book, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, so I will not go into the details of that here, but converting eventually gave me the motivation to stop smoking.
One of the things that had drawn me to Judaism since I was eight was the music. I remember sitting in synagogue at the bat mitzvah of the daughter of a friend and weeping inside that I would never be able to sing such beautiful music, music that moved me more deeply than any I had ever heard.
Oddly, however, after I converted it did not occur to me that I should start learning the music. I was quite content to sit in the congregation and sing along with it. I have a rather distinctive bass voice, and on congregational melodies I could certainly be heard.
One Shabbat after services my rabbi at the time, Rabbi Ed Freedman, asked me when I was going to lead a part of the Sabbath morning service from the bimah, i.e. the pulpit. (For those unfamiliar with Judaism, one does not have to be an ordained rabbi or cantor to lead a service). With his encouragement and tutelage, I began learning the music for the various parts of the Sabbath morning service. My singing was received well by the congregation, and almost every Shabbat I would lead part of the service.
Then there came the day when I realized that I wanted to lead the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, services which are quite complex musically. But one thing made me hesitant. I had begun coughing up huge globs of mucous and knew that I could not trust my body not to have to eject a mass of mucous in the midst of a singing a solemn prayer. I had to stop smoking if I was going to be able to pray in music, which is what it was like for me when I sang the music of the Jewish liturgy.
I went to a local acupuncturist I knew and respected, Jonathan Klate. He had developed a method of fooling the body into believing it was still receiving nicotine. On July 13, 1988, 2:45 p.m. I smoked my last cigarette. It took a month before my body was at peace with the radical change of living without nicotine after 32 years of living with it. It is a month that is a void in my memory. All I remember is being in a nether world that was neither life nor death. But at the end of a month, the sun came up and I could see and hear and feel again. I’ve not had a cigarette since, not even the craving for one.
I am convinced that if I had not stopped smoking when I did, I would have ended up with lung cancer and would now be dead instead of living with emphysema. While I have certainly had and still have moments of regret that I smoked for so long, on the other hand, I cannot imagine my life without emphysema. That sounds odd even to me, but it is true.
I will try and explain in the next blog.
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Henry David Thoreau
Huiji-jiyi(Chinese): "To avoid following your doctor's advice for fear of being recognized as the sufferer of a disease."
Cemetery in Fog and Snow, Belchertown, Mass.