Joshua Nelson: Answering the Call

When I say I wasn’t raised Jewish, I am Jewish – sometimes people are confused – because to them Jewish means being white. There are individuals that can trace their Jewish genealogy back 100 years, some even 200 years; but I don’t believe there is anyone who can trace their Jewish roots all the way back to Moses.” Meet 27-year-old Joshua Nelson, gospel singer, Hebrew teacher and African-American Jew.

Nelson greets me with a smile that lights up the room. I like him immediately. Reading my expression as he removes his baseball cap with the Black Yankees insignia across the front, he explains, “When blacks were not allowed to play on the New York Yankee team, or with any other professional ball clubs, they started their own league in 1936,The Negro League Baseball Players Association, and we got our own Black Yankee team. To the day he died, you couldn’t say Yankees in front of my grandfather.”

Unlike most Jewish families who fled Poland, Lithuania, or the Former Soviet Union in the early 1920s, or left the ravages of post-war Europe, Nelson traces his Jewish roots back to his mother’s great-grandmother in Africa, where, Nelson says,”they followed a more primitive form of religion, a pre-talmudic Judaism, very much like the Falashas in Ethiopia.” The men in the Nelson family have been a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish, but having a Jewish mother, halachically makes Joshua Jewish.

“My grandmother grew up in the south and later moved to New Jersey-but even when my own mother was a young girl,” Nelson says,”it was hard enough to be black in America, let alone Jewish and black. The family celebrated the festivals and holy days with a small group of other black Jews, but felt uncomfortable announcing their unusual mixed culture to their white neighbors.” it was not until Israel’s two clandestine rescue missions-Operation Moses in 1984, and Operation Solomon in 1991, airlifting a total of 22,000 Ethiopian Jews to safety-that most North Americans first saw an African Jew. Nelson’s love of Judaism and his love of gospel music might be seen by some as dueling passions. Traditionally observant teaching Hebrew to B’nei Mitzvah students at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, New Jersey, Nelson is also the music director at Hopewell Baptist Church, a ‘vibrant black congregation in Newark When Hopewell moved to its current location, the original site of Temple B’nai Jeshurun before its move to the suburbs, the church minister Jason C. Guice and pro-Israel advocate made the decision to leave the Ono and all the synagogue artifacts intact.

“I love teaching Hebrew and being with the kids,” says Nelson. “I know I can be a tough teacher drilling them in class, but that’s because I want them to do well, and know they’ll thank me on the day of their bar or bat mitzvah. I believe you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. I wanted my choir at Hopewell to learn Hebrew, which they thought was going to be impossible, but you should hear them sing ‘Adon Alom.”’

Growing up in East Orange, New Jersey Nelson, the third of six children, was a leader, very independent and stubborn, with a mind of his own, which according to Nelson’s mother Sharon, was not always easy for the single parent. She says,”Joshua always wanted to unite people, and seemed to have that natural ability with his music.” From the time 8-year-old Nelson first heard Mahalia Jackson sing “How I Got Over” on an album he found in his grand-parents Louise and Elvin Nelson’s apartment he was hooked. His grandmother loved opera and listened to classical music. In fact, Nelson had never heard gospel music before, but it spoke to him in a way that got inside his being and has never left. Nelson says shyly “Whenever I would get a spanking, or be upset, I would go in and put on the album and it would somehow comfort me.”

As he got older, when his friends were listening to rock, Nelson’s ear was always tuned in to gospel. He explains “Spiritual music came out of the time of slavery as a means of communication. After leaving secret prayer meetings, the slaves would go back to the cotton fields, and sing their messages as they worked. As they moved north, they adapted popular Christian hymns but added a lot of soul. Black gospel is very different from white gospel, because the hymns are syncopated with a little bit of suffering.”

A naturally gifted musician, Nelson is self-taught and plays the piano by ear. His voice is exceptional, his rhythm and timing perfect He graduated from Newark’s High School for the Arts (as did his grandmother), whose alumni include Melba Moore, Savion Glover, the late Sarah Vaughan and Tisha Campbell. When asked why he didn’t pursue a music scholarship to one of the prestigious U.S. conservatories, the perfectly balanced Nelson answers, “Because as much as I love music, I wanted to study Hebrew:’ Nelson majored in Hebrew language at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, completing his degree at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1994.

The first time Nelson went to Israel at 15 with his temple youth group, he remembers being emotionally over-whelmed. “You read it in the Bible, and then you’re really there. Every time I go back, I feel the same rush of energy. And every time I go back, I make sure to put my prayer in a crevice at the Wall. ‘As a Jewish adult, I thank my mother for instilling Jewish values for keeping up the traditions, especially in teaching us to keep Shabbat holy” shares Nelson.”When I was a child, I would go with my mother, brothers and sister to services at Congregation of the House of Israel in America, a small black synagogue in Brooklyn, with other families who were from Ethiopia and Yemen, and the rabbi chanted Hebrew in a very strong Caribbean accent. We used to love celebrating Passover at the temple, and for the Seder we all dressed in white-then afterward we would all hurry to be home in time to escape the angel of death.” Now, whenever possible, Nelson attends an Orthodox Sephardic minyan at Ahavas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, in West Orange, New Jersey, where the members are mostly Yemenite, Iranian and North African.

“I would like to marry a Jewish girl, because then my children will be Jewish. A lot of black Jews find it easier to meet and marry non-Jews, who go through conversion later.” Nelson dates mostly Jewish girls, and once the parental question of “Are you Jewish?” is out of the way, there is usually no problem. Nelson sees a common bond between Jews and Christians in their basic values of tolerance, peace and goodwill; and a strong bond between Jews and blacks, “because spirituals tell of 400 years of African-American suffering, and Jews can certainly relate to that.” Nelson does make the distinction that because it is not part of his own religion he avoids singing songs about Jesus being equated to God. Nelson’s travels through Israel, along with his unique cultural and religious background, have influenced him to create a new form of music-a fusion of Jewish liturgical and African- American musical style. He delights his audiences musically, spiritually and visually, and has been described in costume -a royal-blue velvet, gold-embroidered caftan and cape from Morocco-“as looking very much like a human Torah scroll.”

Edward Robinson, Mahalia Jackson’s former pianist is sure that “Joshua has an assignment from upstairs.” He says emphatically, “I never thought I would ever hear another voice like Mahalia’s, but then along came Joshua. He unites people everywhere he goes.” Nelson, often performing with Robinson, presents an annual “Tribute to Mahalia Jackson,” attracting an audience of 3,000 at each concert. At 13, he gained national prominence for his recording of Jackson’s “How I Got Over,” which sold more than 150,000 copies, and was nominated for the gospel music industry’s Stellar Award as well as a Grammy. At 15, he performed the signature piece at the jazz diva Sarah Vaughan’s funeral at the request of her family. In 1995, he and Robinson accepted a posthumous award on behalf of Ms. Jackson, at her induction into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa. Oklahoma.

Nelson has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Billy Preston, Stephanie Mills, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie and Aretha Franklin, whom he considers one of his mentors. Nelson opened for Franklin in her “Gospel Crusade Against AIDS” at Lincoln Center in 1997. A recent European tour that included Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland and Germany left his audiences mesmerized. Nelson also toured Israel where he performed in perfect Hebrew, and sang “Hatikvah” at Biyanei Ha’auma Hall in Jerusalem for then President of Israel Chaim Herzog in 1992.

Nelson is attracting new listeners everywhere. And he is such a likeable person-a combination of charisma and familiarity-that fans scramble to line up for a few words with him, as he signs copies of his CD Hebrew Soul. At one of his concerts last summer at Temple Knesset Israel in the Berkshires, many 80- and 90-year-old fans were dancing in the aisles. Nelson says,”l want to take this music all around the world to all types of audiences. I want to let people hear it and realize that it is not just good to listen to, it is good for the soul.”

The award winning 6o-minute documentary, Keep on Walking, produced by Tana Ross and Dutch producer Freke Vuijist, tells the story of Nelson’s life and celebrates his ability to transcend the differences between races and faiths. The idea to make the film was sparked after Ross saw Nelson performing at a gospel concert at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Keep on Walking is making a splash at Jewish film festivals all over the u.s. and Canada and is usually a warm-up for one of Nelson’s supercharged performances. Filmed on location in Newark, St. Louis, Stockholm and Jerusalem, Keep on Walking premiered in Copenhagen, where Nelson has a huge following, and has also been shown in Japan, France, Italy and Israel. Nelson is proud of being able to accomplish what others might call mission impossible. ‘One of the most significant moments in my life was in 1999, when I performed in Selma, Alabama and President Bill Clinton delivered an address at the commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” in recognition of the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965.”

As Nelson looked out at the crowd of 10,000, he saw Louise and Elvin beaming with pride as he took the stage. That they lived to see this day in history was a testament to where they had been and how they had both traveled. Nachas is available to all grandparents, and it comes in every shade of love.

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