Cultural traditions typically change slowly, over the long arc of history. But occasionally a folk cultural innovation emerges that is startlingly fresh in its outward manifestation, although it remains deeply—even reverently—traditional at its core. You may have never heard of “kosher gospel” music before, but the inspirational performances of Joshua Nelson, the creator of this style, will surely call out to your soul.
Kosher gospel is the marriage of Jewish religious lyrics and meanings with the soulful sounds of American gospel music. While the word “gospel”, a Greek word meaning good news, is usually associated with African-American Christian churches, the musical styling is African, sounds that came from several African tribes, and developed as a tool to escape social injustice. This was the Spiritual, the Meter Hymns, Jubilee songs and ultimately, the coined “Gospel Music.” These African rhythms pre-date the West Africans introduction to Christianity. These same sounds have been retained in the musical cultures of Black African Muslims and Jews, and such soul-inflected vocalizations filled the Black Hebrew synagogue Joshua Nelson attended as a child with his family, observant Jews who traced their lineage back to Senegal.
When he was eight, Joshua Nelson discovered an album by Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, in his grandparents’ record collection, and he fell in love with her singing. During his teens and early twenties, he became widely celebrated as a gospel singer continuing the Jackson legacy. Born and raised Jewish, he continued studies of Judaism, including two years on a college and kibbutz program in Israel, clarified his understanding that throughout history, Jews had always integrated Jewish law and religious practices with the cultural context in which they lived; for example, as Nelson points out, any ethnic style of cuisine can be Jewish if it is kosher. Upon his return from Israel, Nelson began to apply this understanding to music, beginning what has been called “a revolution in Jewish music” by combining Jewish liturgical lyrics with one of America’s best-known indigenous musical forms; thus kosher gospel music was born.
For Joshua Nelson, kosher gospel is a way to claim both parts of his identity as a Black Jew. For his audiences, whatever their faith or heritage, kosher gospel has been a revelation. Now in his early thirties, Nelson has performed around the world, for Presidents, congregations, major music festivals—and for Oprah, who named him a “Next Big Thing.” He has produced a stellar album, Mi Chamocha, sung with stars from Aretha Franklin to the Klezmatics, and served as the subject of the acclaimed documentary film Keep on Walking. Nelson also passes on this musical gift as an artist in residence at Jewish congregations across the country, including at his home synagogue of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform congregation in South Orange, New Jersey where he taught Hebrew School for 15 years. Whatever the venue, Joshua Nelson, the Prince of Kosher Gospel, brings people—and cultures—together in joyous song.
N.Y. / Region
Can I Get a Shalom?
By TAMMY LA GORCE
-September 11, 2005-
AT a recent rehearsal at the Hopewell Baptist Church for a religious music festival, Josh Nelson’s voice rang out above the choir, singing a fire-and-brimstone soul that sounded eerily similar to Mahalia Jackson. Swaying choir singers and rousing piano chords were his accompaniment. But Mr. Nelson was not performing a traditional Christian hymn synonymous with gospel music. He was singing a familiar liturgy in Hebrew: ”Adon Olam.” Mr. Nelson, who is Jewish, calls his sound kosher gospel. And although his renditions stray far from traditional Jewish music, synagogues have embraced what amounts to a spiritual mash-up, inviting Mr. Nelson to breathe new life into staid liturgies. ”I won’t lie,” Mr. Nelson said at the rehearsal with the Kosher Gospel Singers at Hopewell, the former synagogue B’nai Jeshurun. ”Jewish music is boring. Bo-ring. But it doesn’t have to be.” Mr. Nelson is scheduled to open the first New Jersey Jewish Music Festival on Thursday. He is not the only performer who exemplifies the sweeping range of new Jewish music; there are, after all, the Isle of Klezbos, a sextet of lesbian klezmer musicians, and Yehuda Glantz, an Argentine influenced by Latin music. But Mr. Nelson, 29, may be the most marketable: Not only is he a Newark native, his appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show and on the stage with Aretha Franklin and Wynton Marsalis should help reel in crowds, and his performance is likely to persuade them to stick around for the eight other acts. When Mr. Nelson, who lives in East Orange, sings ”Mi Chamocha,” which in Hebrew means ”Who is like you, God?,” he is less a seeker than a soothsayer, someone invested with the power to humble and shepherd. In addition to performing at synagogues, including his own, Sharey Tefilo-Israel, in South Orange, Mr. Nelson occasionally appears at a Baptist church or secular event, and he tours internationally. He has also released ”Mi Chamocha” this summer with the Kosher Gospel Singers on his own label, and he performs regularly with the Klezmatics, whose latest release, ”Brother Moses Smote the Water” (Piranha), includes Mr. Nelson’s name on the cover.
For those used to the sedate, unaccompanied voices that sing traditional Jewish music, kosher gospel can take getting used to. First, there is the seemingly contradictory term, which Mr. Nelson says has nothing to do with the New Testament, but is a reference to the African music that predates Christianity that has influenced soul music. Then, there is a sound equated with Jackson — Mr. Nelson’s biggest influence — and other Christian gospel singers Mr. Nelson used to listen to at his grandmother’s home. ”Soul has nothing to do with Christ,” Mr. Nelson said. ”It comes from Africa, and that’s something people don’t understand. Slaves adopted Christianity, and they put the sounds of their work songs – moaning, groaning and chanting,” he said, pausing to imitate all of them, ”into the Christian religion.” He added: ”Amongst black people there are many religions, many black cultures. We need to accept the variations.” Both of Mr. Nelson’s parents are Jewish, he said, and his family attended temple at a black synagogue in Brooklyn, then switched to Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a reform synagogue with a liberal reputation. He remains devoted to Sharey Tefilo-Israel, where he still teaches Hebrew. In 2001 Mr. Nelson was the subject of a documentary by a Swedish director, Freke Vuijst, filmed in Newark, St. Louis, Stockholm and Jerusalem. ”Keep On Walking,” later purchased by PBS, distills Mr. Nelson’s philosophy: ”Gospel is joyful, and the music allows you to express that. I’m just making it totally kosher for a Jewish audience.” Most of the artists who will follow Mr. Nelson at the New Jersey Jewish Music Festival share that spirit. Isle of Klezbos plays on Saturday and Mr. Glantz will stir spicy Latin influences into the mix Sept. 24 at Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston. Jewish Broadway belters, famous Jewish-American composers and a father-daughter team of Yiddish singers will also get a chance to perform. ”Let’s be honest,” said Julie Rossi, director of the JCC Metrowest’s Center for the Arts, which is holding the event. ”We have NJPAC and the Papermill Playhouse down the street. We thought, ‘What should we be bringing to the community?’ Jewishness is not just one thing. This is our niche, our forte.”