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Theology Thursdays: Soul Train Shabbat by Zach Reff

Shalom and Hallelujah! Praise Adonai! At a synagogue in New Jersey a congregation stands up and sings along to some good ol’ gospel music. They respond loudly to the choir in a joyous antiphony of invigorating spirituality. Congregants clap and holler. Some of them start dancing and swaying, and not just davening.

This is full on soul train shaking—Jewish style. This is no ordinary Friday night service, and Joshua Nelson is no ordinary Jewish musician. Welcome to the world of kosher gospel.

“Kosher gospel is almost a synonym for soul. I’m actually just putting soul into Jewish music,” said Nelson. Though he doesn’t have much competition, Nelson is being hailed as the world’s best kosher gospel singer. He invented the unique musical form himself. “I’m the only one that’s doing this,” he admits. From some, such a claim might be a boast. From Nelson, it is a modest understatement.

At only 29 years old, Nelson has accomplished many remarkable things. For starters, he is revitalizing the concept of Jewish services as somber and sleepy affairs. His music, including gospel versions of songs like Mi Chamocha and Adon Olam, is filled with energy, life and boundless happiness. This is certainly not your Eastern-European grandmother’s traditional synagogue fare. “It’s still Jewish,” he says, “It’s just a little bit more contemporary.”

Nelson has performed in both synagogues and churches around the world. He has sung for, and with, musical greats such as Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis, jazz legends Cab Calloway and Dizzie Gilespie, the klezmer band The Klezmatics (who he has also released a CD with), and numerous prime ministers and presidents.

Oprah Winfrey admits she is one of his biggest fans and called him “the next big thing in music” when she invited him onto her show last year. “I’ve never heard a voice like Joshua’s before. He literally brings the house down,” she said to her national television audience.

Nelson was born and raised in New Jersey in an observant Conservadox family. They kept kosher, observed the Sabbath and attended a black synagogue in Brooklyn. As a young black Jew, Nelson often encountered discrimination on two fronts.

“When you’re black and Jewish you get discriminated against twice as much,” said Neslon. “Part of it is because some people are erroneously taught that being Jewish is a race, and these people believe that race is white. So, for these people, you have to be white or Caucasian to be Jewish, and anyone outside of that is going to be questionable. I even heard people say things like, ‘Oh, he’s just Jewish by religion.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, aren’t all Jews Jewish by religion?’”

By some estimates, there are as many as 200,000 black Jews in America alone. “One reason why the black Jewish community is hidden is that some of them don’t even identify themselves as Jews, but as Hebrews or Israelites because, they don’t want to be misunderstood in the black community as trying to be white. Because ‘Jew’ to some people means white,” Nelson said. The music he sings, however, transcends all races and ethnicities. His kosher gospel is rousing no matter what shade of Jew you happen to be. “You have to be a wooden stick not to understand the spirituality in Jewish music,” said Nelson.

So, how did a nice Jewish boy from Jersey go on to invent a brand new musical style? It was one part luck and several parts hard work, passion, and creativity.

“Growing up as a Jewish child I wasn’t the best candidate for a gospel singer,” said Nelson. He began playing the piano at age six and found that he was a naturally talented musician. Then, at the age of eight, he discovered gospel music. His grandmother, a classical musician, owned an album by Mahalia Jackson, who is commonly referred to as the greatest gospel singer ever. One listen to the album and he was hooked. “I started listening to it and I fell in love with her style of singing,” said Nelson.

At the age of 13 a rabbi suggested that Nelson sing Jewish music in the style of Gospel. Still, it wasn’t until after he graduated college with a degree in Hebrew from Temple University, and after he returned from studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, that Nelson first assembled a choir and began composing and singing Jewish gospel tunes. His debut concert was a “big smash” and since then Nelson has enjoyed increasing acclaim touring and releasing recordings of his music.

What makes music Jewish is its content,” said Nelson. “Halachicly with Jewish law, there is nothing wrong with singing Jewish gospel music.” Nelson composes everything himself and says he hardly borrows from anything other than the Jewish liturgy.

“There is no limit to what you can do to the prayers,” he says.

At Nelson’s own synagogue, where he has taught Hebrew for the past 13 years, they have seen in increase in the amount of teens that stay involved with the temple after their bar mitzvahs, a fact that may be directly correlated to his music. “A lot of kids now are looking for something that speaks to them…something hip and cool,” said Nelson. “If you instill it in the kids as they grow up, they will be participators for life.”

One of the main things Nelson hopes to accomplish with his music is getting people more involved in services and in Jewish life in general. Unlike most Jewish services where there is little interaction between congregant and clergy, gospel music demands something more from the congregation. “Gospel music is very interactive in that there is a call and response. It makes the worshiper a participant in the service,” said Nelson.

And once you become an active participant in a service, well, you’re one step closer to being more involved Jewishly, and probably more excited about your spirituality as well. “When you leave the service you feel rejuvenated,” said Nelson.

Rejuvenation and spiritual elation?


This article was published by The San Diego Jewish Journal.

Zach Reff

Thursday, April 6, 2006

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