The gospel truth about the church music that's Jewish

Vocalist Josh Nelson believes that gospel singing is well at home in the synagogue.


By Jessica Elgot, May 27, 2010
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Josh Nelson: Jews relate to the hardship experienced by black slaves, he says

Josh Nelson: Jews relate to the hardship experienced by black slaves, he says

No one could accuse Jewish music of not being diverse. There is Jewish reggae and hip hop, Jewish folk, even Jewish heavy metal. But despite Judaism's eclectic modern sound, Jewish gospel still feels like an oxymoron.

Not so, says black Jewish gospel singer Joshua Nelson. The impassioned choir music most commonly associated with church singing groups is actually one of the most inherently Jewish sounds around.

He explains: "Gospel is closely connected to the African experience of slavery in America. It's a bittersweet sound because without such hard experience we could never have the good music. That kind of hardship is so close to the Jewish experience. Jewish people have always been isolated within communities in Europe over centuries.

"The sounds are closely aligned too - there is a deep similarity between the wailing of the cantors from the shtetls in Europe and the groaning of the African slaves.

"But in modern times, we get so caught up with tradition that we miss the point of religious music. I pushed that aside and went straight to the emotions of the prayers and of the music and incorporated it into Jewish worship."

Born in the Black Hebrew community and raised in New Jersey with six brothers and sisters, Nelson calls himself the "prince of kosher gospel" and "the Ku Klux Klan's worst nightmare". He and his band, The Kosher Gospel Singers, are bringing their blend of traditional liturgy and American soul to the Leeds International Jewish Performing Arts Festival in June.

As a teenager, Nelson rebelled against his Orthodox mother and asked to join a Reform synagogue, the Black Hebrew congregation of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, in South Orange, New Jersey.

He says: "She didn't like that at first but when she found out the rabbi there marched with Dr Martin Luther King, she came round."

Nelson, who traces his lineage back to Senegal, idolised the "Queen of Gospel" Mahalia Jackson, and says he was not alone in his community in his admiration for gospel singing.

He says: "The estimate is that there are about 200,000 African-American Jews, and if you go to their services, the prayers and the singing have always had a soul element, so I can't take credit for inventing the style."

It was in Israel - where Nelson studied Judaism and worked on a kibbutz for two years - that he realised he could combine his love of gospel with his faith.

"I went to services at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem while I was studying over there and heard the cantors wailing with a male chorus. They sounded just like Mahalia Jackson's background singers."

"I spoke to the rabbi and he was very encouraging. He told me that that kind of creative thinking is a very Jewish trait. The Torah says 'shiru l'adonai shir chadash' which means 'sing unto the Lord a new song'. It's a commandment to make the prayers understood in the language of the people, so younger generations can interpret the older prayers.

"Jewish music is about the lyrics, it's about the liturgy. Halachically, we are able to do anything with it. We have to keep the music up to date so people can have a personal experience with prayer."

The traditional exuberance and the outpouring of religious emotion associated with gospel music is perhaps not something that comes naturally to Jewish synagogue-goers. Could Nelson see the traditional congregations of Hendon or Leeds dancing, singing and clapping like the Christian evangelists of the American Deep South?

"Gospel music is actually close to the Orthodox tradition," he replies.

"You have the chazan who wails, and the congregation responds. It's the Reform where it's quieter, more personal, where everyone sits and watches. It's disconnected, people don't know the prayers to respond.

"As a performer, I've never run into anyone who has ever said: 'That's not Jewish'. To deny that would be to deny that Judaism is a living, evolving religion."

His style has won him fans like Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie and Oprah Winfrey, who tipped him as the next big thing for gospel music. But it is ordinary Jewish congregants whose opinion Nelson values the most.

"Gospel music is becoming very popular now in the US, especially in the Reform," he says. "And we're always looking for the 'kosher equivalent' of something. You go to a barmitzvah and they serve a kind of fish which looks something like shrimp. Kosher gospel music is a bit like that."

He adds: "When I perform in the UK, everyone sings, they dance, they clap. You will know all the songs. We sing Adon Olam, Hine Ma Tov, Mi Chamocha and more. You will know the melodies, they are traditional, set to a different style and a little bit more enthusiastic."

Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Singers perform at the Leeds Jewish International Performing Arts Festival on June 6 and 8

    Last updated: 2:42pm, May 27 2010