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Jewish Soul

When Lee Kobin went to hear Joshua Nelson in concert at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, she couldn’t believe what she witnessed.

“This kid came out and started to sing, and within a moment, people were up and dancing and clapping,” she said.  She remembered the rolling in the aisles, singing along to the familiar melodies of “Adon Olam” and “Hinei Ma Tov” as if it were a gospel concert.  She even had a picture of the mayhem, with people enjoying his music, while Nelson was adorned in beautiful garments that the kids would later touch in amazement.

She knew at that moment that the Reform Temple of Laguna Woods had made the right decision in bringing him to perform there. On May 1 at 3 p.m., the “Prince of Kosher Gospel” will be making his debut in Laguna Woods.

“I guarantee that no one will complain that they can’t hear him,” Lee said.  “His enthusiasm wells.”

Nelson, who was born and raised Jewish, is one of 100,000 black Jews across the United States.  He has called himself in interviews, “The KKK’s worst nightmare.”  At the age of eight, he found a Mahalia Jackson album at his grandparents’ house.  He was moved by the music and strove to be a gospel singer.

Despite his love of gospel and performing it throughout his twenties, he still had an immense love of Judaism.  He studied at Hebrew University and Hebrew Union College in Israel and even worked on a kibbutz.  However, in Kobin’s words, he found a difficult time finding a place for his music in Israel.

Still, he realized that as kosher food could be applied to any ethnic area, so have Jews taken the cultures that they have moved to and adapted to the region while keeping their spiritual practices.  With this in mind, kosher gospel was born.

In 2000, a documentary film, Keep on Walking: Joshua Nelson: The Jewish Gospel Singer, was made about him and his musical journey.  He made his debut at the Jewish Museum in New York City with the band the Klezmatics.  They began to collaborate together and then launched very popular concert tours in Europe.  On his own, Nelson performed in synagogues and churches all over the United States.  One night, while performing at a church, he was found by Oprah Winfrey’s sister.  Later on, the talk show host brought him on her show and anointed him “the next big thing.”

In addition to his recognition on television, Nelson has performed with Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway and numerous fellow gospel singers.  He has sung for Presidents, prime ministers and in concerts and at major congregations across the globe – all while balancing his teaching at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, N.J., one of the two congregations that he belongs to there.  His music is even featured in the movie, The Yankles.

He feels that combining his love of Jewish culture with African-American style brings something special to the Jewish music world.

“I want to let people hear it and realize that it is not just good to listen to – it is good for the soul,” he said in a statement.

It is something that Kobin was drawn into almost immediately when she saw him perform.  As the people started to sway, she knew that the Reform Temple of Laguna Woods was very lucky to get him.  She compared it to a Jewish musical style that was very different, but just as distinctive.

“Debbie [Friedman] was the opposite side – delicate, feminine,” she said.  “His [voice] is very masculine, and he is great pianist. You hear him just sing, but when you put this together, it’s powerful: a masculine powerful voice with a great range.”

Since his performance, Kobin has enjoyed going online and watching YouTube clips of his music.  His music incorporates the passion and soul of pure gospel with the tradition of the Jewish people, according to Kobin.

One of her favorites was watching him do a performance of “Elijah.”  He was going for eight minutes and everyone was delirious with excitement.  That’s when he drew back and he began to do it softly, and the audience seemed to get wide eyed and the love seemed to overwhelm.

“That kind of love — you get that in black gospel singing,” she said.

The love is something that will extend out to the Orange County Jewish community.  For Kobin, she feels that the music will uplift anyone who gets the opportunity to hear it, from the youngest child to the oldest adult.

“I felt rejuvenated,” Kobin said.  “I didn’t feel like I was a great grandma anyone.  I didn’t know I could move certain things.”

The concert will be held at Laguna Woods Village, Clubhouse 3.  Tickets are $15 to $25.  Contact Arthur or Adeline Moss at (949) 454-0662 for tickets or more information.


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. – www.joshuanelson.com/bio

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