Pauline Levy, Beth Judah Member with Joshua Nelson
Joshua Nelson remembers being served collard greens at his family’s seder table. It’s a far cry from the typical parsley and celery, but probably emblematic of Nelson’s culturally melded upbringing, laying the groundwork for what ultimately would become Nelson’s signature musical style: Kosher Gospel.
Nelson, now known as the Prince of Kosher Gospel, will be performing Saturday, October 25th as part of Beth Judah’s Centennial Celebration. Dinner and Concert will start at 6pm. Tickets are $100 per person. Call 609-522-7541 to purchase tickets.
Nelson came on the scene about 14 years ago as the subject of “Keep on Walking,” a documentary “showing the dichotomy of a Jewish African American who loved Mahalia Jackson,” he told the Chronicle in an interview. “The conviction of [Jackson’s] music is what culminated into Kosher Gospel,” Nelson said. “It was a fusion of life happenings and revelations about what being Jewish really is. Some people see Jews as a tribe of a perceived race. I don’t really believe in races. I see Judaism as a people with a shared culture and heritage that can be translated in different ways. Being Jewish is broad.”
Nelson was born Jewish to a Jewish mother of Romanian descent, and a black Jewish father. His mother had been given up for adoption as a child, and was raised by a black Baptist woman. This woman—Nelson’s adoptive grandmother—encouraged his mother to practice Orthodox Judaism in her home, although she was not Jewish herself. “This Baptist woman renewed our faith in Judaism,” Nelson said of his adoptive grandmother, who also introduced him to the recordings of Jackson.
Nelson attended a black synagogue in New York as a child, but his family eventually found a home at the nearby Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, N.J., whose rabbi had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Nelson went on to teach Hebrew school there for 15 years. Nelson continued his studies of Judaism, spending two years on a college and kibbutz program in Israel. When he returned, he began combining what had become his two loves: Judaism and American gospel music. “What makes our music kosher is it’s Jewish, but presented in a gospel style,” Nelson continued. “The liturgy is all Jewish. It’s like taking hallelujah back.”
The re-working of traditional songs like “Adon Olam,” and “Hinei Ma Tov” in a gospel style infuses new energy into the pieces, and makes the songs fresh and exciting, without become a “novelty,” Nelson said.