Photo by Dennis Kleiman
The self-proclaimed prince of kosher gospel, Joshua Nelson is giving “Praise the Lord” a whole new meaning.
The prince has arrived. Curtains part, clapping subsides, and the so-called prince of kosher gospel- otherwise known as Joshua Nelson- takes the stage in a dark tuxedo and a gold skullcap with regal bearing.
In the bright lights, he is slim, light on his feet, and about to unleash a robust voice and a bellyful of song.
My ears prickle in anticipation. Nelson has performed in synagogues and churches, for President Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. He is at ease with the microphone, though he often sings without it.
Tonight, Nelson is the main attraction at a New York City fundraiser for CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, where I am an eager guest. For the past week, I’ve been listening to his toe-tapping rendition of “Adon Olam,” which begins with a rich cantorial tune and blooms into a soulful melody.
With the opening chord, Joshua’s choir arrives: five zaftig, rhythmic, sassy women (and one man) who answer “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” to his “hey-ey-ey-ey-ey.” Recruited from gospel choirs and Baptist churches, they belt out Hebrew prayers and give voice to kosher gospel, what Joshua defines as the combination of liturgy and soul.
The audience goes wild.
Joshua famously found his calling at age eight when he discovered a Mahalia Jackson record at his grandmother’s house. The third of six children in a fairly traditional Jewish home in Brooklyn, he grew up accustomed to attending synagogue and keeping some semblance of Shabbat. As such, he knew that becoming a gospel singer was not an ideal career prospect for a nice Jewish boy. When he told his mother his intention, legend has it that she asked if he was going to throw around some kosher salt to make it “kosher.” But Joshua was not dissuaded.
With a rich voice that has been compared to Jackson herself, Joshua’s career took off in short order: At 13, he splashed onto the gospel scene with his recording of Jackson’s “How I Got Over.” At 15, he sang at jazz singer Sarah Vaughan’s funeral. He also was a soloist during his four years at Newark Arts High School in New Jersey.
Joshua’s presence as much as his pitch eventually led to collaborative performances with a slew of well-known artists, including Billy Preston, Aretha Franklin, and late jazz greats Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. His rendition of “How I Got Over” has sold more than 150,000 CDs, and was nominated for the gospel industry’s Stellar Award and an Emmy.
But Joshua’s first blend of Hebrew texts with African spirituals came during college, when he studied in Israel for two years. Just as he told his mother more than two decades ago, he explains why his gospel songs are kosher: “From the surface, it appears that it’s a connection with Christianity or maybe not even Jewish at all, and the truth of the matter is that what we term gospel music is really nothing but the marriage of West African slave songs to whatever it is that you’re trying to spice up,” he says following the concert.
That is his answer, too, when asked how he justifies his current roles as both a Hebrew school teacher at Temple Sharey-Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, N.J. as well as the music director at Hopewell Baptist Church in Newark. “My theology or my philosophy is that you can be a Methodist, you can be a Buddhist, you can be Catholic, whatever you are. It doesn’t mean that I can’t interact with you. It doesn’t mean I can’t be a good Jew, the best Jew that I can, but give to the world what I’m supposed to,” he says.
During his performances Joshua has been known to work the crowd into a frenzy. Tonight is no exception: more than 100 people are on their feet, clapping and stomping as the choir bangs on tambourines and snaps their fingers. Strangers are dancing together, and a mostly middle-aged crowd has roused underused dance moves. During the finale, Joshua and the choir join them in the aisles, singing as they wind their way through the concert hall.
According to Joshua, all is how it should be. He rejects the staid synagogue experience where congregants sit and observe the rabbi and cantor’s “performance” of prayer. “I don’t think some of us receive Judaism as Judaism … we watch the service pass us by without ever connecting,” he says. “There should be some type of neshama, some feeling when you leave synagogue.”
Joshua’s belief is that he can bring a bit of passion into Judaism through his music. He says that after one of his shows, a fan once rolled up her sleeve for him and said his music made her arm hair stand on end. “I say that’s not goose pimples, that’s your soul speaking to you and you don’t even know it,” he says. Fittingly, kosher gospel is “something I was meant to do,” Joshua told the Boston Globe in 2004. “I’ve met so many people in different religions, different groups. What I’ve started doing is reaching people through spirituality.”
One of the most important aspects of reaching his audience, Joshua says, is teaching them about the diversity of Jewish life. “How can you put a black, Mahalia Jackson-singing, Louis Armstrong-dancing, gospel singer – kosher gospel singer – in a box?” he says, of himself. “So through music, we are actually educating people on what Judaism is. Breaking down some of the stereotypes and myths.”
He says he learned to be a chameleon as a child. He owned three sets of skullcaps, including a black leather yarmulke that he wore to fit in with European Jews. “We grew up Jewish in our home,” he says. “When we ventured outside our home, we were, I guess, black Jews. People didn’t know what to make of us,” he says.
Not even Oprah who called him “The Next Big Thing” when he appeared on her show in 2004. “Even Oprah Winfrey, on her show, she says, ‘Now Joshua is half-Jewish and half-black,'” he recalls. “And my whole congregation stood and said, ‘Which part of you is Jewish and which half is black?'”
More recently, Joshua and his choir were traveling in Mexico when they were stopped at the border by an incredulous immigration official. They had just performed at the Mexico International Jewish Film Festival and were scheduled to sing in Toronto afterward. “You are Jewish?” Joshua says the immigration official asked him. “And the members of your group are Jewish? And you’re coming from the Mexican Jewish film festival?”
It all seemed too unbelievable until Joshua showed him the group’s official Web site – with a picture of Joshua on Oprah’s talk show. “When they saw Oprah’s picture, they let us go.”
He may be the prince of kosher gospel. But Oprah, she’s the queen of television.