Joshua Nelson is resting his voice. That's a tall order for Nelson, the 29-year-old African American Jewish singer who has blended black style and Jewish prayers and folksongs into a new, foot-stomping, synagogue-shaking praise music he has dubbed "kosher gospel."
Though he's been spreading his unique gospel for years, lately it's been catching on like wildfire; an appearance on "Oprah" last fall solidified it as a hot commodity in crossover music, and Nelson as its inventor and chief spokesman. So Nelson has been speaking -- and singing -- a lot lately, which is why he is doing his best to do as little as possible of both between dates of his current tour (he and his band arrive at University Synagogue in Irvine on Jan. 22).
But once he gets started, once a certain spirit moves him and a passion for the subject matter takes hold, it's hard for him to stop.
One subject he never seems to tire talking about is how he was moved to create kosher gospel, which for all its appeal strikes many people (Jewish and non-Jewish) as a contradiction of terms. Nelson is African American in the truest sense of the word: his Orthodox mother (his father is also Jewish) is from West Africa, and he grew up in South Orange, N.J. He is a third-generation Jew who grew up around predominantly black synagogues in Harlem and in his hometown. But his original inspiration for kosher gospel came from a traditional rabbi in Jersey who cornered him when he was a teenager honing his singing style. Rabbi Sky saw not only potential in Nelson as a performer, but also in his performance style--the potential to attract new generations of Jews.
"Rabbi Sky was strict, and I thought he was going to scorn me and the way I sang," recalls Nelson. "But he didn't. He said, 'You should put that sound to Jewish music. You can encourage young people to come to temple!'"
Nelson has done that, and then some. His widening audience includes not just reinvigorated Jews, but non-Jews drawn to the undeniable spirit of the music, especially African Americans who were raised on this music in churches and who have always been steeped in it culturally. The fact that Nelson sings Jewish liturgy and prayer -- often in Hebrew and not about Jesus -- matters not to folks like Oprah, who respond primarily to Nelson's soaring voice, his infectious rhythms and his conviction, all of which look and sound awfully familiar.
And the fact that Jewish and Christian themes and theology overlap, especially in the black church -- the story of Moses and the divinely aided deliverance of his people from slavery comes to mind -- makes Nelson resonate that much more. All of which is fine by him.
"Blacks have always put soul into something, wherever they are in the world," he says.
A scholar of gospel, he stresses that despite the synonymity of the music with church, gospel originated in the fields where black slaves toiled for centuries in the American South.
"When slaves were introduced to Christianity, their moans and groans were wedded to hymns -- that was syncopation. That was how gospel really came to be," explains Nelson, who in addition to being a singer is a Hebrew teacher at his longtime temple, Shari-Tefilo Israel in South Orange. "Gospel wasn't really accepted by churches, which thought it was too bluesy. Ultimately, it was too black."
Nelson says his idol, gospel great Mahalia Jackson (whom he closely resembles in voice), encountered the same kind of disapproval early in her career in her adopted hometown of Chicago, which was populated by middle-class blacks seeking to distance themselves from black folk traditions and all things Southern. The power of gospel won out, of course, and Jackson went on to become a superstar and a catalyst for the music's popularity.
Nelson says there's a parallel between that dynamic and one unfolding today in Christianity: "You have a euphoric element in all denominations now."
As for Judaism, he believes that gospel at temple is an idea whose time has come.
"In Jewish tradition, there were songs that [blacks) always sung with soul," he muses. "We always did at our temple. It wasn't exactly gospel, but it was different. We brought our traditions to it, like Jews all over the world brought their own traditions to the faith."
It's irresistible to speculate that kosher gospel is just the sort of entertaining, listener-friendly thing needed to help bridge the divide between blacks and Jews that developed after the 1960s and that conscientious folks in both camps have wrung their hands about ever since. Though he has no problem with multiculturalism or with coalition-building -- his own Reform temple is notably diverse -- Nelson cautions against equating race with religion, or implying it, in any discussions of blacks and Jews, or of Jews and any other ethnic group.
"Jewishness is not a race," he says emphatically. "We tend to think in this country that all Jews are European or Ashkenazi. That's how the immigration went. But that's not the case." Ironically, Nelson says that he encounters skepticism most frequently not from Jews or whites, but from blacks. "They've just never met a black Jew before," he says, particularly one singing gospel. He adds, with a laugh: "They get a little confused."
Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will be in concert Jan. 22, 6:45 p.m., at University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine. For tickets, call (949) 553-3535.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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