Kosher gospel

Every Passover, when Joshua Nelson chants “Avadim Hayinu” or “We Were Slaves,” the words have double meaning for him.

A world-renowned singer, Nelson is an Orthodox Jew and serves as guest chazzan, or cantor, at synagogues around the world.

He’s also African American, loves black culture and gospel music and counts among his idols Mahalia Jackson. He once performed with the great gospel singer shortly before her death.

Claiming both the black and Jewish traditions as his own, Nelson has enjoyed a successful musical career fusing the two. Nelson plans to take that fusion to a new level when he appears with the Klezmatics at this year’s Jewish Music Festival on Sunday, April 3.

“You never know what the Klezmatics are going to do,” says Nelson in a phone interview from his New Jersey home. “We’ll probably combine klezmer, gospel and spirituals.”

The show should prove a challenge for him. Nelson does not come out of the Yiddish-inflected Eastern European Jewish tradition (“I learned early on that gefilte fish and pickled herring was German food, not Jewish food,” he adds with a laugh). But he’s learning quickly and will even sing a song or two in Yiddish.

Nelson admits he’s more comfortable singing in Hebrew, a language he speaks fluently having grown up with it and formerly having lived in Israel.

In recent years he’s been recording, touring the United States, Europe and Israel and sharing the stage with artists like Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis and Billy Preston. He’s even appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey” show, inspiring the daytime TV diva to call Nelson “the next big thing in music.”

Straddling cultures as he does, it’s not surprising Nelson encounters some African Americans and Jews who question his authenticity. “I teach Hebrew school,” he says, “and sometimes a parent comes in and asks me if I’m on the custodial staff. It’s the same in the black community. I’ll do a church concert and a minister afterwards might say to me, ‘Oh those Jews.’ And I say to him, ‘Well, I’m Jewish.’ But they don’t try to convert me.”

In truth, he is part of a long tradition of pre-Talmudic African Judaism tracing its lineage back to regions like Ethiopia and, in Nelson’s case, West Africa.

“We go back [with Judaism] as far as we can remember,” says Nelson. “My grandmother’s grandmother was Jewish.”

At the same time, Nelson and his family were very much a part of the world of their neighborhood. “We definitely felt part of the African American family,” says the singer. “My grandmother loved Mahalia Jackson, so I just picked up her albums myself and fell in love with her music.”

While he may not have shared Jackson’s theology, black gospel music struck a chord for the budding vocal star. He routinely sings it in concert now, though he’s careful not to veer too close to blatantly Jesus-oriented tunes (he calls his style “Kosher gospel”). He has always viewed gospel not so much as a Christian outlet but as a native African art form.

“The origins of gospel music have nothing to do with Jesus,” he says. “The slaves came from different tribes and spoke different languages. The best way to communicate was singing in the fields. Once the slaves learned Christianity, they took what they learned in Africa and fused it with European melodies. What we hear today in gospel music is the soul of the slaves. It’s the same soul Aretha put in ‘Respect’ and Ray Charles put in ‘Hit the Road Jack.'”

Though Nelson’s huge voice could easily take on pop and soul standards like those, he says he intends to keep his music on the straight and narrow. “My whole message is not to convert people,” says Nelson. “It’s a time out for spirituality. You can be any religion and connect with other people. Through singing you can be closer to HaShem.”

Joshua Nelson will appear in concert with the Klezmatics at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 3, at Wheeler Auditorium on the campus of U.C. Berkeley. Tickets: $23-$50. Information: (415) 276-1511 or online at www.brjcc.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.