Ray Charles was singing soul music but talking about love.
Aretha Franklin turned gospel music into love songs.
And Joshua Nelson made gospel kosher.
All Nelson was doing when he came up with the fusion was bringing both parts of his heritage—African-American and Jewish—together.
It all began more than two decades ago when Nelson was teaching Hebrew school in South Orange, New Jersey. He saw the students were kind of…bored. He started doing a call-and-response technique they often do in yeshivas and churches. Nelson called out “Barukh ata” and had the class answer, and then he responded with a melodious “Aaammmeen!”
“I realized they were learning this way, and that’s how kosher gospel music was born,” he says.
An amalgamation of jewish prayers and songs set to standard gospel tunes, kosher gospel has revitalized the Jewish soul.
“I felt the music was lacking in the prayers in the Reform movement. That’s where I took the soul music and put it to Hebrew.” Soul, he says, “brings people closer to Hashem.”
Nelson, 41, doesn’t teach Hebrew school anymore because he has been too busy performing around the world, for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, President Bill Clinton and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His album, Mi Chamocha, is sung with stars from Aretha Franklin to the Klezmatics, and he’s the subject of the documentary Keep on Walking: Joshua Nelson, The Jewish Gospel Singer.
To imagine what kosher gospel is, sing “When the Saints Go Marching In” mashed up with “Hinei Matov.” But it pales in comparison to experiencing it.
Picture a stage with four African- American singers crooning into the microphones. The audience of some 300—mostly older Jews—is clapping along on a cold Christmas day at The Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York. Offstage we hear a beautiful tenor singing “Adon Olam” to a jaunty, upbeat tune. From behind the curtain emerges Nelson, an olive-skinned man with hazel eyes and muttonchops, wearing a burgundy bejeweled kippa and a floor-length, cream-colored A-line tunic, also decorated with jewels, reminiscent of a hazzan—or a prince. Which is Nelson’s moniker: The Prince of Kosher Gospel.
Nelson’s whole mission is to do good in the world, to bring the soul into Judaism. Not that it hadn’t been there. The “A-a-a-a-ni Ma’a-a-amin”—he trills the plaintive melody, often sung in times of Jewish troubles—“are all minor chords,” he says. “I saw the similarities [to gospel] right off the bat when I would read the prayers.”
Nelson, the third of six kids, was born to a Jewish mother of Romanian descent who was given up for adoption in the 1950s because she was half-black. Nelson’s African-American grandparents, who trace their roots to Senegal, raised his mother and her six children as Jewish. “I learned more about Judaism from my grandmother taking care of my mother than anything else,” Nelson says. He grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, in his grandparents’ house, with his mother, stepfather and siblings.
“My grandparents raised us in a home that didn’t give us many boundaries,” he says. “They let us explore and come to our own being—it was a very heavy Jewish identity.”
Nelson describes his childhood Judaism as “very dedicated,” getting up every morning to go to different shuls, from Orthodox to Reform to Chabad to Sefardic and Black Hebrew. “I wanted to know all the synagogues in my community, to be able to pray in every one of them.” He was very forthcoming about his Judaism as a kid, wore a kippa every day, looking like a “Chabad kid.”
“Growing up as a Jew I knew I was black, but we were really more Jewish,” he recalls. “We infused African-American culture with our Judaism.”
When he was 8 years old, Nelson found an album by Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, in his grandparents’ basement. He fell in love with her singing and spirit. “Mahalia Jackson had a Jewish soul,” he says. He took it upon himself to preserve her music. (“She was the queen and I’m the prince.”)
He first went to Israel with his synagogue on a high school trip and had a very spiritual experience at the Western Wall. He spent two years in Israel on a college kibbutz program through Temple University and Hebrew Union College, studying political science and Hebrew. One day, when he heard the choir at The Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, he thought they sounded like Jackson. He suddenly understood he could integrate both parts of his black and Jewish identity. He took Jewish liturgy and set it to his favorite sounds.
Some liken Nelson to another musical Jewish innovator, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. “Rabbi Carlebach himself spent a lot of time in Harlem with black musicians,” says Rabbi Perry Berkowitz of the East Side Synagogue in New York, “and he utilized a lot of what he was, how lively the music was, how it reaches inside the soul and has the ability to lift the spirit.” Berkowitz shares the pulpit with his sister, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, at their Upper East Side synagogue, where Nelson leads a kosher gospel service on the High Holidays.
“I always tell the congregation,” Perry Berkowitz says, “that when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel went to the synagogues of all the different denominations and he found that all of them…lacked the fervor, the warmth and the intensity of the synagogues he knew from his childhood in Warsaw. When he started to travel with Martin Luther King to Baptist churches and elsewhere, he was taken with the music, and that was the power he was looking for.” The Berkowitzes see that in Nelson’s kosher gospel. They had met Nelson when he was just starting out in his late teens. “We were there in the very beginning, when he was unknown, and as soon as we heard him, we said, ‘He’s got the spirit,’” recalls Berkowitz.
Nelson is far from unknown these days. In 2004, he performed on Winfrey’s show and, that year, she dubbed him “The Next Big Thing.”
And, he tells the audience, he and his band recently performed for her again, in her “backyard” (“A football field!” he jokes) to honor civil rights activists. (The performance will air on Oprah’s OWN network on June 18.) “You know, Hannah Senesh was a civil rights activist,” he says from the stage, referring to the hero who was sent during World War II to Yugoslavia from Mandatory Palestine to help save Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz; arrested, tortured and executed, Senesh never revealed the mission. “We don’t call her that, but that’s what she was doing.”
This is nelson’s charm—not just his mellifluous voice, but his storytelling, too. For example, he connects the words “Hinei Matov U’manayim Shevet Ahim Gam Yahad” to Shabbat. “Shevet is Shabbat. You have harmony, peace, you can sit down and rest.” Then he segues into the difference between work and rest, how the bumblebees work, the humming birds work and the African slaves worked.
For him, that’s what gospel music is about. Although one of the definitions of gospel is Christian teaching, he is quick to point out that gospel music predates Christianity and, for that matter, religion.
“It’s African, it’s not Christian at all—the Christianity came later,” he explains. The slaves, he says, sang spirituals as work songs. When they learned Bible from their slave masters, they used the symbolism from there. It was also the way they communicated. “Down by the Riverside,” for example (“Gonna lay down my sword and shield/Down by the riverside”), could have meant, “we’re meeting by the riverside to escape.”
Today, Nelson, who is single, still lives in New Jersey, where he and his sister cared for their grandmother until she passed away two years ago. The rest of the family live in Virginia, but they all gather on Passover for a big celebration—Passover being an important holiday for black Jews, celebrating freedom from slavery.
Nelson’s levity and humor are all in service of his deeper message. “I think it’s about taking every piece of who you are and recognizing it,” he says. On Shabbat, for example, he has cornbread instead of halla and fried chicken in place of roasted.
He recounts how Heschel marched with King in the 1960s. “Rabbi Heschel saw what was going on in Germany was similar to what was going on with African-Americans,” he says. “Civil rights are about everyone’s rights. I try to build those bridges to help each other learn from each other. The more friends we have the more family we have. Although the black and Jewish communities are not as intimately tied as they once were, they have the same values.”
That’s why he has all his singers visit Auschwitz. “You can’t understand African oppression unless you understand Jewish oppression,” he says. “As a child, I had to accept myself as a black Jew or I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.”
For Nelson, of course, it’s all a part of him: his African-American and Jewish cultural heritage, Jewish history, civil rights, “Adon Olam” and “Down by the Riverside.”
“Some black Jews disassociate themselves from their Africanism—they take on an identity that’s just Jewish and don’t keep the flavor [of their heritage],” he says. But there’s nothing wrong with being both. “You can still be you and be Jewish—you don’t have to change yourself, you don’t have to get rid of your soul.”