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 at Temple Sinai, Thursday, May 31, as part of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival.
A black Jew who grew up inspired by “Queen of Gospel” singer Mahalia Jackson, Nelson takes traditional Jewish liturgical songs and infuses them with the inspirational energy of that particularly American form of music.
Nelson, now in his late 30s, came on the scene about 12 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.
“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.
While gospel music is typically associated with Christianity, its roots are actually African, Nelson said.
“When Africans came to America, they really couldn’t communicate, and they would moan and groan,” he said. “Those sounds were a precursor to soul [music]. When they became Christian, they focused those sounds into their newfound religion.
“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.
Hearing is believing.
“It’s just a unique experience,” said Sara Stock Mayo, music soloist and chaplain at Temple Sinai. “It’s just so unexpected and so inspirational.”
Mayo has heard Kosher Gospel perform twice, and recalled audience members moved to rise from their seats, dance, and clap along with the band.
“There is so much pure emotion, and I think sometimes people are just craving that,” Mayo said. “All of the texts [in the music] are based on Jewish texts. A lot of gospel music is based on what they [non-Jews] would call the first Testament anyway. The music is very Jewish, just unexpected.”
Nelson has performed around the world, with Aretha Franklin and the Klezmatics, and for Oprah, who named him the “Next Big Thing” in 2005. He will be performing in Pittsburgh with his full ensemble of 20 backup singers, acoustic base, drums, piano and organ. He said he is hoping for a big turnout from both the Jewish community and the black community.
“I reached out to a Baptist church in Pittsburgh myself [to encourage attendance at the concert],” he said. “ ‘Hinei ma tov.’ How goodly it is for brethren to dwell together, Jewish, gentile, women, and men, like Dr. King said. This concert is about collectivity and togetherness.”
Want to go?
“Kosher Gospel with Joshua Nelson,”
Thursday, May 31, 7:30 p.m. Temple Sinai call (412) 394-3353, or visit proartstickets.org for tickets.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)