He’s the king of kosher gospel

He’s the king of kosher gospel

Meet the Black Jewish musician Joshua Nelson

Black Jewish musician Joshua Nelson riffs about his life.
Black Jewish musician Joshua Nelson riffs about his life.

It doesn’t really matter how many other people are on stage when you go to a Joshua Nelson show.

It can be his own singers, it can be the wonderful —and at this point venerable — Klezmatics; probably it can be just about anybody. You, in the audience, won’t notice them. All you’ll see is Joshua Nelson. You’ll see a Black man, a Jew, singing gospel, singing Jewish music, singing his own music. You’ll see a man dressed in a brightly colored robe, crowned with a brightly colored hat, regal, radiating intensity.

You will love it.

And you have a chance to see him in Queens on Sunday. (See below.)

So who is Joshua Nelson?

To begin with, he’s soft-spoken. “I’m just a regular person,” he said.

His career, as the singer of what he calls “kosher gospel,” began when he was 8. “My grandmother was a big fan of Marian Anderson,” the Black contralto who sang both opera and spirituals, was a civil rights advocate, and in many ways embodied the struggle for those rights. “I was going through my grandmother’s records — I was a kid in East Orange — and I happened to put on a Mahalia Jackson record. Her greatest hits album.”

This was a record player, the record was an actual disk, made of vinyl, and Mahalia Jackson was a hugely popular, enormously influential gospel singer who had died in 1972.

“I didn’t really know anything about Mahalia Jackson when I put that album on,” Mr. Nelson said. “They didn’t talk about her. So I put it on, and it was — it was — you know how you hear something that is so strange that you can’t tell if you like it or you don’t like it? I couldn’t determine what I felt or what it was.

“About two years later, my grandmother went to a program celebrating the life of Mahalia Jackson, and she came back — we had cassette recorders then — and she was playing it.” But it wasn’t Mahalia Jackson on that tape, “and my grandfather was saying, ‘You better sing it, gal!’ I said, ‘That lady didn’t sound like Mahalia Jackson. It’s not her.’ And I got furious that they couldn’t hear how different it was. It was somebody from a Broadway show.

“I like things to be right, so I started collecting her records. My grandmother said, ‘No one sings like Mahalia Jackson.’ So I would collect those records, and I learned to sing from them. I learned the nuances from them.

“At 13, I made my debut. It was at a Baptist church – my grandmother was Jewish, my grandfather was Baptist — and they were a little nervous, because they didn’t want me to embarrass them.

“And what happened is that I sang, and people were like, ‘Ohmygod, your grandson sings like Mahalia Jackson.’ And they were so proud.

“They didn’t know that I was studying this. Nobody did. I would just go to my room and practice. And Mahalia was such a huge icon in the Black community that I started singing everywhere.

“And at the same time I was going to Sharey Tefilo for Hebrew school.” That’s Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.”

Mr. Nelson’s family history is complicated. “My grandmother passed away 12 years ago, at 94,” he said. “She was African American — she had roots in Senegal — and she was Jewish, and she adopted my mother. 

“It was really a secret,” he continued. “She couldn’t have children.” It was a very different time then. Adoption often was kept secret; people had not yet realized that such secrets were hard to keep, and hard on the children they were meant to protect. It also was well before DNA tests and the internet; even if children eventually learned they were adopted, it was much harder for them to search adoption records than it is today.

“My grandmother didn’t want my mother to know; she was afraid that if my mother did know, she would say, ‘Well, I’m not really your kid.’ She wouldn’t have said that. I know that.

“My mother was given up for adoption by a Romanian Jewish lady who had a relationship with a Black guy. She couldn’t keep the child.”

Eventually both Mr. Nelson and his mother met his biological grandmother, and he went to Romania to learn more about her background, and his.

“There is a story in every direction,” he said. “I am really into knowing history. I read history. 

“I learned as a child that people would say that Mahalia was a Christian gospel singer and I was Jewish, so how could I sing like her? And I would say that it had nothing to do with her being Christian. It had to do with her. She was unique. And I was the only one able to do her justice.

“People would ask me how I could be Jewish and sing songs with Jesus in them.” So “I did some studying,” Mr. Nelson said.

He learned that the gospel songs they sang were field songs; work songs that enslaved people, who were captured from different tribes from different parts of Africa, would sing to make time and work go more easily. “They were field songs, not songs about Jesus,” he said. “This was prior to their conversion to Christianity.

“After they converted, the spirituals were secret codes about escaping. So when they sang ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ the master thought they were singing about Jesus, but ‘steal’ means ‘escape’ and Jesus was the North Star.” It’s the same thing with “Down by the Riverside.” “That was about escaping,” Mr. Nelson said. “And ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ — the drinking gourd also was the North Star,” pointing the way first to Philadelphia and then to Canada, he continued.

“Those slave songs were so ingenious, because the slave masters loved to hear their slaves sing.”

Drums were not permitted, he continued, because they could be use to transmit messages from one plantation to another, but enslaved people would use their hands, their feet, “or a spoon, and beat it against a steel triangle,” Mr. Nelson said. ‘It’s all drumming. It’s an amazing component of gospel music.

“As a Jew, I said, ‘You know, we can’t concentrate on the religious dimension. It’s not about that. it’s about the soul of the African-American story, from Africa to the present.’ It’s amazing.

“And many African Americans don’t get it either. Many African Americans say to me, ‘You are singing slave songs. These songs are from the past.’ And I say, ‘No. You are not getting it. It’s telling about the past, your history, and it’s also about the present, and about the future.”

Moreover, he added, when it comes to this not being Jewish music — “we have the idea that Jewish music has to be a certain way, but you see that every indigenous Jewish group — Arabic Jews, eastern European Jews, Indian Jews — sounds like the indigenous music.

“In my opinion, Black Jews had a little problem because they didn’t realize the distinctiveness of the field song, so I combined it with Hebrew songs, and that makes it kosher.”

At times, Mr. Nelson felt not entirely accepted by the African-American community as a full member. “As a Black Jew, Jews see me as being Black, and I can celebrate my Blackness with Jews, but I was never 100 percent Black with African-Americans. They’d say you have the wrong hair. You’re mixed. They’d say, ‘You’re more Jewish than you are Black.’

“And I said, as a kid, who is the Blackest singer? And there was Mahalia Jackson.

“It’s not just about music. It’s about bringing peace to my life. The seeming dichotomy — Jew and Black person, Jewish music and Black music — it helped me with everything.

“I was thrown off a Black Jewish site because the whole site was about how the white Jews don’t accept us,” he continued. “And I said, what is a white Jew? We are all Jews from different cultures. You are taking something that America did to you, and you’re bringing it into Judaism. We have to bring Judaism into it.

“If you have a Jewish mother, you are Jewish.” 

“I go with pop culture, and I call myself a Black Jew, but deep in my heart I am just a Jew.”

Mr. Nelson moves between his various worlds with what seems like ease. “Music has taught me how to conquer my deepest fears and be fully me, and to get respect from people on my terms,” he said.

He’s played on Oprah Winfrey’s show. His route there was circuitous, ran through her mother’s house, and like so much in his life, was connected to Mahalia Jackson.

Ms. Jackson had died long before, but “I met some of her entourage — they’re all dead now too – and I met Oprah’s mother at one of those parties with them. And she said to me, ‘Hey, Joshua, how would you like to come up to Milwaukee for Christmas? You’re Jewish. You’re not going to be doing anything for Christmas. You do Chanukah.’

“So that was my tradition, to go to Oprah’s mother’s house for Christmas. I did that for about 10 years.

“And then I did a concert that was a tribute to Mahalia Jackson, and Oprah came. I sang, and I used Mahalia’s piano, and Edward Robinson and Charles Clency, who played with her were there – they became my musicians. I was immersed in her world.

“Oprah heard me sing, and she said, ‘Joshua Nelson, I will give you a call.’ She did, and I appeared on her show.”

He sings in many churches; in one of them, “they said, ‘You sing great. I love the way you sing gospel. But are you saved?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’ And I said, ‘No.’ Judaism is a practical religion. It’s not about believing. It’s about being.

“Jesus was a Jew,” Mr. Nelson continued.

“Jews didn’t sit around waiting for someone to save them. And Black people didn’t either. They actively left slavery, looking for freedom. Mahalia was like a Jewish woman; she was a powerful Black woman, who did things that no one else did. When she started, there was no such thing as a gospel industry. She created it.”

“And I did it myself. I created kosher gospel.”

Mr. Nelson feels far more comfortable with Black Christians than with white evangelicals, he said. “Some of them don’t want to hear about what you believe. They believe that they are here to teach you. But how do you say that Jews are like Jesus? They are waiting for Jesus to come back to take them to heaven. Why can’t you do it here? Jews didn’t wait for God to make Israel manifest. No. We were there, and we did it ourselves.

“Tikkun olam” — the mandate to help repair the world — “is God endowing us with the power to work as his hands and do his bidding,” Mr. Nelson said. “It’s not waiting for him. It’s about us doing, on God’s behalf. It’s about working as emissaries for God, fixing the world. He gave us the Garden of Eden to keep it. This is our garden.”

Mr. Nelson talked a bit more about his career. “I used to teach bar and bat mitzvah kids,” he said. “It helped me to teach them, and they were having so much fun that they didn’t realize that they were learning,” he said. “People sometimes get into a stalemate.” They get stuck emotionally. “They say, ‘this is boring. This is corny.’” When the kids would say that, “I would say, ‘No, it doesn’t have to be that way. You are making it that way.’”

When he taught at Sharey Tefilo, the school had about 800 students, he said. Eventually, he stopped; “It was taking a toll on my voice,” he said. “There was so much talking.” And it interfered with his concert schedule. But still he misses it.

For almost 30 years, Mr. Nelson led the choir at Hopewell Baptist Church in Newark. For much of that time, the church met in the building originally built for Temple B’nai Jeshurun, which decamped for Short Hills in the 1970s. (The magnificent old building now is being renovated as an event space.) “The minister heard me sing at a funeral, and said, ‘Would you come and play for me?,’” Mr. Nelson reported.

“I said, ‘I’m Jewish. Will that bother you?’”

“And he said, ‘I’m Christian, will that bother you?’”

“That was the Rev. Jason C. Guice. He is just amazing. He was like my dad. Just amazing. The choir from the church and I would tour the country. They were my kosher gospel choir.

“It has been an amazing journey. Something you didn’t think was even possible became possible, and nurtured my whole life. It just opened my brain.

And I thank God for an amazing life. This has nothing to do with houses or cars or money. It is the experience of seeing so much. Of connecting with people beyond my own realm.”

Like many other performers, Mr. Nelson took time off during covid, but he’s back at work in public spaces now. 

And he’s still playing Mahalia Jackson’s music, among many other works. He’s not imitating her, though; instead, he’s blending her music into his world, with all its many influences and its rich and broad history. “That’s what soul music is,” he said. “It’s opening your soul and sharing it with people.”

Mr. Nelson lives in Newark. “When you travel around so much, you have to have a place that’s home,” he said. Newark roots him. He’ll be playing in Queens next weekend; he’ll be the cantor at a shul in Marlboro for the High Holy Days this year.

He’s a complicated musician. 

He talked about meeting another enormously important and gifted soul singer, Aretha Franklin. “The greatest moment in my life was singing with Aretha Franklin,” he said. He was able to go to her house on his 25th birthday; it was his dream gift. He drove there, although he didn’t have a license at the time. How could he do that, he asked the friend who was getting him in to see her? “Don’t get stopped,” he was told.

He didn’t.

“She said to me, ‘You sound like Mahalia, but there is something else in you, that is destined for greatness.’ I was a little disappointed when she said that, that I didn’t sound exactly like Mahalia, but I said, ‘Okay.’ She was Aretha.”

But then, “I told her about kosher gospel, and she said, ‘This is your mission. You do that.’”

And he did.

Who: Joshua Nelson

What: Will be in concert with Ivory Coast traditional dance and drum master Vado Diomande

What’s it called: Gospel Meets Côte d’Ivoire 

When: On Sunday, July 24, at 1 p.m.

Where: At Flushing Town Hall in Queens

Why: As part of the series called Mini-Global Mashups

How much: $15 per ticket; $12 if you’re a member of Flushing Town Hall

To learn more and for tickets: Go to www.flushingtownhall.org or call (718) 463-7700 x222