Joshua Nelson Brings Flavor & Soul to Jewish Music I‘ve always been fascinated by gospel music and how moving and uplifting it is. There’s something about this type of music that shakes us to our core and moves us to our feet! Then, when I heard about Joshua Nelson and his brand of “Kosher Gospel” music, I knew I had to find out more. He’s given credit for the idea of combining two parts of his own heritage, African-American and Jewish, and creating a new style that combines Jewish meaning and gospel. 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 predate West Africa’s introduction to Christianity. These same sounds have been retained in the musical cultures of black African Muslims and Jews, such soul-inflected vocalizations filled the Black Hebrew synagogue Joshua 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 Jackson’s legacy. 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.’’ 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 was a Hebrew school teacher for 18 years and this is where he was inspired to get the students excited about singing– he wanted to wake everyone up and infuse the prayers with a more modern edge and soul.
He was born and raised Jewish, and studied Judaism for two years at a college and kibbutz program in Israel. 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. He told me there are many similarities between the black experience and that of being Jewish. Social Justice is a very important theme throughout his life and his music.
I recently had the chance to speak with Mr. Nelson, to learn more about his background, and what we can expect from his upcoming show here in Orange County.
You are performing at Temple Beth Sholom as part of their Maxine Horwitz Cultural Series on April 29, what can we expect from your performance and what do you want people to walk away with?
Kosher Gospel challenges listeners on several levels. Hearing gospel music first, then they hear the lyrics in Hebrew, the prayers we are all used to hearing. Jewish music but with soul, similar to the black churches around the country. This music raises awareness of the power of Judaism, the power we see and hear. I’m a traditionalist and have two sides to everything, first we perform the original song, then I put my spin on it, and trust me you will be on your feet!
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.” Oprah also said this of Joshua, “He doesn’t sing ‘Oh Happy Day’ he sings Oy Happy Day!”
Nelson explained 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. “What makes Jewish music is what we’re singing about, whether it’s Torah, life, festivals, or social justice. Also the idea that it is a fluid, living entity that grows and takes on different shape throughout history is important to remember. Being Jewish is something you are in your mind and your understanding. Every Jewish family has their own concepts of how they practice traditions and cultures.”
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 traditional liturgies. 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 today, but whatever the venue, Joshua Nelson, the Prince of Kosher Gospel, brings people—and cultures—together in joyous song.
I always like to end my interviews by asking what’s the best piece of advice you were given or would like to give?
Always have an open door or an open window. Keep your mind and heart open, all synagogues are created with a window or a door so you can see the world from a different view—one sunrise to a different sunset.
Maxine Horwitz Cultural Series Presents, “Joshua Nelson and the Mostly Kosher Gospel Singers,” Sponsored by TBS Sisterhood. This event will take place Saturday, April 29 at 7:00p.m. For more information please visit our website, www.tbsoc.com/community/sisterhood
To purchase tickets for the event: joshuanelsontbsoc.brownpapertickets.com
For more information about Joshua please visit his website: www.joshuanelson.com
Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel, and currently works as the Coordinator of Outreach and Engagement for the NextGen Department at Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County.