The Prince of Kosher Gospel
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.
January 15, 2006
IN PERSON: He's Getting Over
MIGHTY cultural rivers course through Joshua Nelson. On one hand, he is an African-American who grew up in East Orange. On the other, he is an observant Jew who can track his Jewish heritage back to his mother's great-grandmother in Africa. And he can sing, really sing. Some people even compare Mr. Nelson, who is 29, to the celebrated gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who died in 1972.
In the liner notes to his CD ''Brother Moses Smote the Water,'' Mr. Nelson wrote: ''Who ever said that going to temple had to be boring? I try to make music so the listener will hear something and feel it as well. When a person sings a song, you should feel something.'' And Greg Wall, the artistic director of the New Jersey Jewish Music Festival, said: ''By taking ancient Jewish texts and setting them to gospel music, Joshua Nelson gives everyone a chance to re-examine the meaning of the texts. It's like old wine in a new bottle. He's decanting the text. In the same way Ray Charles took gospel music and made it secular, Joshua is bringing gospel to Jews by giving them a way in.''
Though he has a worldwide following, Mr. Nelson doesn't stint on his local roots. He still lives in East Orange, and he teaches Hebrew and music to children at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, where he also attended Hebrew school as a child.
And on March 25 at Sharey Tefilo-Israel, Mr. Nelson, in his capacity as a full-throated, note-bending gospel singer, will join his klezmer-rocking friends the Klezmatics, the gospel and soul singer Cissy Houston (a resident of Newark and the mother of Whitney) and a full choir to present a Passover concert.
''It'll be a traditional program,'' Mr. Nelson said during a break between classes at the synagogue. ''Cissy Houston's going to sing in Hebrew. She called me up - we've been friends for a long time - and asked me for my Hebrew prayer book. She said, 'Baby, I want to sing in Hebrew, too! I can sing it if you teach it to me.' ''
But thanks in no small part to artists like Mr. Nelson, Jewish music continues to change and adapt. There is a growing group of Jewish artists who blend swatches of Hebrew with popular music, like the Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, the world music act Isle of Klezbos and the Latin hip-hop outfit Hip Hop Hoodios. And the experimental composer John Zorn's Tzadik label, through its Radical Jewish Culture imprint, is broadening the boundaries of Jewish music. Artists like Mr. Nelson - who proudly wears a floor-skimming, gold-embroidered black velvet robe and African-style silk hat during performances - are taking their place before congregations unafraid to make traditional Jewish music sound different.
If he is leading a well-received musical revolution, though - Mr. Nelson and his backup group, the Kosher Gospel Singers, have received invitations to perform from all corners of the globe, including Europe and Africa - he is not quite ready to concede that a personal revolution has been as successful. One of Mr. Nelson's constant frustrations, for as far back as he can remember, is people's inability to grasp the concept of a black-Jewish heritage. ''There's somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 black Jews in the United States, and we all have different stories,'' Mr. Nelson said. ''Some are the product of interracial marriages, or they've converted to Judaism. And some have descended through the centuries. In my family, my grandmother remembers that her grandmother was Jewish, so we go way back.
''People need to learn that being Jewish is a religion and a people, not a race. When people see a black Jew they say, 'O.K., who converted?' They're thinking being black can't mean you were born Jewish. But we're all converts. No one can trace their lineage back to Abraham. Someone's heritage may go back 500 years, another person's may go back 300 years.''
The instinct to rout out ''religious racists'' - his term - has gripped him since his earliest memories of traveling from East Orange with his family to an Ethiopian congregation in Brooklyn for High Holy Days and special services.
''We had a super, super Jewish identity as kids,'' Mr. Nelson said. ''My family made sure of it. We were always explaining ourselves. We didn't want our Jewishness to fall through the cracks.''
Referring to a 2000 documentary about his life, ''Keep On Walking,'' Mr. Nelson said: ''You know, the documentary covered everything - race, my Jewish background - but it was totally overlooked by the black community. It was shown at over 60 Jewish film festivals but at only one African-American film festival.'' The problem, he said, is a lack of understanding of diversity within the black community.''
In East Orange, Mr. Nelson grew up as one of six children. Ten years ago, his parents and most of his siblings moved to Virginia. He graduated from the Arts High School in Newark, studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later attended Temple University in Philadelphia.
If Mr. Nelson's race-based frustrations seem like fodder for a Spike Lee film, ultimately, though, they consume him less than the call to keep making his music - and promoting it. A tour of the West Coast this month furthered sales of his seven CD's, the most recent of which, ''Mi Chamocha,'' was released in 2005 on his own label.
His philosophy that the listener should feel something when listening to Jewish music is reflected in ''Brother Moses Smote the Water,'' which he recorded with the Klezmatics and Kathryn Farmer and features tracks that run the gamut from ''Hinch Ma Tor'' to ''What a Wonderful World.''
Sometimes entire audiences that cannot not translate a simple ''shalom'' turn out to hear Mr. Nelson.
N.Y. / Region
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.''
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.
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.
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.''
OY! TALK ABOUT SOUL - Joshua Nelson's the prince of Jewish gospel music
We've all heard of kosher food prepared according to Jewish law. But Jewish, New Jersey-based musician Joshua Nelson adds a little soul food to the kosher menu. And his homemade kosher gospel is definitely a soul meal certified for Jewish intake.
Enter Nelson's South Orange temple, Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and you'll hear revamped versions of traditional Jewish hymns such as "Adon Olam" or "Hine Ma Tov" evoking gospel queen Mahalia Jackson's rich soul tunes. And if the term kosher gospel sounds contradictory to you, Nelson - who proudly bears his African-American and Jewish heritages on his sleeve - asks you to think again. The main ingredient of his music is a pre-slavery soul element that originated in West Africa. And although soul sounds are commonly identified with Christian music, Nelson says his music "is not Christian at all." "The music that we call gospel today is nothing but a fusion of Christian hymns with soul music brought from West Africa," says the 29-year-old East Orange resident who has performed for presidents and prime ministers, and sung with stars such as Aretha Franklin and Wynton Marsalis. Before the slaves were taught Christianity, Nelson explains, they communicated with each other in the fields "through groaning and moaning" singing work songs. "Over time they fused their work songs with their new religion. And that was how gospel music became what it is. "
Nelson, whose love affair with gospel dates back to age 8 when he discovered a Mahalia Jackson album at his grandparents' house, got the idea to add a little soul to his music after a visit to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem about 10 years ago. The all-male orthodox Hebrew choir "sounded so similar to gospel music," he says. He returned home with a plan to create a kosher gospel choir. To those who questioned whether it was appropriate to add non-Jewish tunes to Jewish hymns, Nelson countered that outside of the lyrics, there is no such thing as Jewish music. "Jewish music is about Jewish life and Jewish happenings," he says. "But in terms of sound, there's no specific sound. Each Jewish culture has its own sound. If you live in Iran, the Jewish music sounds like the Iranian music. If you live in Morocco, the Jewish music sounds like Moroccan music."
But Nelson is used to having to defend his religion, although his Jewish lineage goes back over a century and he's a Hebrew teacher of 13 years. Growing up Jewish and black had its challenges. "We were Jews inside of our home. But when we went out, people weren't familiar with it, so they would ask questions all the time," he says. They would ask if his mother was Jewish, or how far his heritage goes back. "That question would not have been asked if I wasn't black."
"In America, people associate being Jewish with eating bagels," says David Pollock of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council. "The majority of Jews in America are white, so people tend to generalize."
The 2005 American Jewish Year Book, published by the American Jewish Committee, estimates that there are 6.1 million Jews in America. A 2001 religious identification survey from CUNY put the proportion of non-white American Jews at 7% (about 400,000), and African-American Jews at 1% (about 60,000).
Although the awareness about black Jews is higher today than 50 years ago when Nelson's grandmother could not enter a New Jersey synagogue, Nelson says the lack of knowledge about non-white Jews is still high. With his music he tries to overcome that. And he has had some significant listeners. He performed for President Bill Clinton in 2000 and for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. Oprah Winfrey invited him on to her show in 2004. The prince of kosher gospel ("Give me 10 years and I'll be the king," he says) draws full houses wherever he goes.
While Nelson continues to tour with his kosher gospel band, he's not ruling out launching into other artistic media. A movie about Mahalia Jackson is in the works. And he doesn't rule out going pop. "Pop music is a way to reach people outside of the synagogue," he says.
Turns out a leap from temple to pop might not be so big after all. "The cantors in the golden age of Jewish music incorporated elements of jazz in their prayers," says David Pollock. "The melody of one of the most prominent prayers in the Jewish liturgy is set to the tune of a German beer-drinking song."
Joshua Nelson performs tonight at 7 at a Passover concert at the Downtown Seder. The Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, (212) 608-0555.
SOME BLACK SYNAGOGUES IN NEW YORK
- The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation
- Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation
- Beth Shalom Hebrew Congregations
- Har Tziyon
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