Music, Religion Create Cultural Crossroads for Joshua Nelson

It’s late Friday afternoon, and Joshua Nelson is juggling a telephone interview with preparations for the Shabbat. The black Jew and singing pianist is playing short gospel versions of Hebrew hymns and klezmer versions of Negro spirituals.

A half-dozen times he stops to take calls from relatives reminding him to bring the right wine and challah to that night’s Shabbos dinner.

Nelson handles the interruptions with graceful good humor. After all, he’s been the family mensch for most of his 30 years on Earth. Besides, he’s used to living at the cultural crossroads. He teaches Hebrew school and directs music at a Baptist church in a former synagogue. He performs ”Elijah Rock” with the Klezmatics. His fans range from Israeli cabinet officials to Oprah Winfrey, who works out to his version of Mahalia Jackson’s ”How I Got Over.”

Nelson will bring his brand of kosher gospel to ”Freedom Sings,” tonight’s concert blending the Exodus with the civil rights movement at Temple Beth El in Allentown. Six days before the start of Passover, he and his band will perform ”Walk in Jerusalem,” ”Lord Don’t Move the Mountain” and other songs written by his idol, Jackson, whose soaring, lassoing contralto he imitates uncannily.

”Civil rights and Passover — that’s a double whammy right there,” says Nelson from his home in East Orange, N.J. ”Freedom from bondage: That’s what it’s all about. I’ve always thought that being spiritual superceded religion, that spirituality has no category — it is in everything. Egypt can be anything: It can be anyone who stops your progress. Yes, sir, Exodus and civil rights: That’s like my whole life story.”

Nelson’s story is remarkable enough for a documentary about his life (”Keep on Walking,” 2000). He grew up in East Orange, the child of a truck driver and a registered nurse, both Orthodox Jews. One of his early heroes was his maternal grandmother, a classical pianist who quietly accepted the double prejudice directed at a black Hebrew. Today, he takes care of Louise Nelson, 90, at his home, a reward for her lesson that ”being truly black is being truly American.”

Nelson was in his grandmother’s house when he had his first musical epiphany. He was 8 when he fell hook, line and sinker for an album of greatest hits by Mahalia Jackson, a minister’s daughter and a regal gospelite. He loved the record so much, he even played it to cry himself to sleep after a spanking.

”I had never heard a voice like Mahalia’s,” says Nelson. ”She had that distinctive New Orleans diction.” Take ‘Walk in Jerusalem,’ where she sings [plays New Orleans stride piano while blasting] ‘Je-ru-sa-lam-BAH!’ She could be colorful and deeply, deeply spiritual without losing control. She was never too wild to scare an audience. She reminded me of my grandmother, who is quite contained, too.”

Nelson adopted ”Walk in Jerusalem” as a spiritual bridge between blackness and Jewishness. He adopted its author as his musical rabbi. He was 13 when he recorded Jackson’s ”How I Got Over.” He was 14 when he began performing with her pianist, Eddie Robinson. He was 20 when he sang ”Move On Up a Little Higher” during a ceremony unveiling her U.S. Postal Service stamp. At 30 he channels her so well, he’s been hired to mimic her voice in a film being produced about her friendship with actress-singer Della Reese, who at 13 joined Jackson’s gospel group.

Nelson’s other childhood idol was Jackson’s friend, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King’s invocation of Judaism and Buddhism to promote civil rights and peace empowered Nelson to respect other religions. King and Jackson, he says, made ”a little Jewish boy” feel larger in spirit, more universal.

Since then Nelson has studied in many villages. A Hebrew school in South Orange, N.J., run by a rabbi who marched with King to demand integration. Arts High School in Newark, alma mater of jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and Nelson’s grandmother. A college/kibbutz program in Israel. The Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where Nelson discovered a gospel-music kinship with the Commandment Keepers, the Harlem synagogue founded in 1919 by a rabbi born in Nigeria.

Nelson is one hip missionary. He praises kosher gospel as zealously as Wynton Marsalis praises jazz. ”Anyone who thinks Jewish music sounds like this” — he plays a wedding oom-pah on piano — ”is limiting Judaism; you’re limiting God as your example,” he says. ”Our whole music is about freedom. What we try to do with music is challenge you with that freedom, to walk through that door and allow your Judaism to breathe.”

A black Jew, Nelson likes to joke, is ”the KKK’s worst nightmare.” He turns serious as stone while discussing the racial-religious divide. There are blacks, he says, who dismiss Jews as greedy landlords. There are white Jews who dismiss black Jews as incomplete Jews. When a concertgoer asked him if he was Jewish by blood, he hit her with bull’s-eye logic: ”Well, I’ve heard of Type A and Type O, but I’ve never heard of Jewish blood.”

Nelson’s current projects are, naturally, ecumenical. His new CD, his first for a major label (Universal), will contain healing songs for Jewish services and healing songs for humanity in general. He plans to continue lobbying for a Grammy Award for Jewish music; Jewish musicians, he points out, dominate the world-music category. He may pop into pop, which ”is just a way of getting a message out quicker.”

Nelson has a host of non-musical goals as well. Marry a practicing Jew. Avoid the carbohydrates that helped cause the obesity, acid reflux and Type 2 diabetes he began eliminating four years ago. Add to his collection of 10 Corvairs, one of which he mischievously drove to a presidential rally for Ralph Nader, who crucified the Chevy in his book ”Unsafe at Any Speed.”

A disciple of kosher gospel, Nelson promises to break the Shabbat rule that forbids traveling by car and working from sunset on Friday to an hour after sunset on Saturday. He chose cause over law last month when he drove to perform on a Friday night for a former neighbor, a Christian on life support.

Nelson sang because the woman’s daughter cared for her invalid mother for 20 years, because he cares for his grandmother, because he is a sucker for blood caretakers. ”I went because it was a matter of the heart,” he says. ”I went because music can heal sometimes when medicine can’t.”

Indeed, the comatose woman grabbed Nelson’s hand while he played. He performed a second good deed, or mitzvah, by performing at her funeral.

Nelson’s mitzvahs have given the woman’s children more Jewish soul, or nefesh. ”Now they’re trying to do anything they can to do good in the name of their momma,” he says with a laugh. ”You know, ‘I’m not Jewish, but I’d like to give $3,000 to a synagogue. Hey, Jesus was Jewish, wasn’t he? Maybe I should give them $5,000.”’

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