The first time the Reverend Al Sharpton heard a recording of Joshua Nelson belting out a gospel version of the Jewish song “Adon Olam,” he reportedly said, “I can hear that’s Mahalia Jackson, but what language is she singing in?” The language was Hebrew, and the musician was Joshua Nelson.
Mr. Nelson knows that he sometimes confuses people. They don’t know what to make of this handsome, outgoing black man in an ornate skullcap singing Jewish songs in the style of African-American gospel. “They’ll be so confused,” he laughs. “They’ll just say, ‘You know what? I’m going to just look at that person as an individual instead of trying to put him in a category.'” That’s good, because Joshua Nelson is in a class by himself.
“Life has not always been easy for African-American Jews,” Mr. Nelson says. He would know. Born and raised Jewish in New Jersey, Mr. Nelson grew up attending a Black Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn. When he was about nine, he asked his mother if he could join a Reform Temple closer to home. Doubtful whether the congregation was sufficiently observant, his mother finally agreed when she learned that the Rabbi there had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama.
Around the same time, Mr. Nelson fell in love with his grandmother’s Mahalia Jackson recordings, and as a young adult, he became known for his powerful singing in her gospel style. “It takes an artist a while to find himself and find his own art,” Mr. Nelson said in a 2009 New York Times interview. “But being a Jewish kid didn’t make me the best candidate for being a gospel singer.”
After graduating from Newark’s Performing Arts High School, Mr. Nelson spent two years in Israel on a college and kibbutz program. “I was inspired by the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem,” he said. ” I think it was Cantor Naftali, and he had a male chorus. They were singing in Hebrew, but it sounded exactly like a cantor with Mahalia Jackson background singers. I said ‘Wow!’ and just had to shout ‘Hallelujah!’
“Then when I returned home I said ‘I’m gonna start Kosher Gospel Music.'”
For Mr. Nelson, that meant creating an entirely new genre, blending Jewish meanings and lyrics with the soulful sounds of African-American music. “It’s not just for Jews,” he said. ” If you love music, you’ll love it — and you’ll learn something.”
Mr. Nelson speaks eloquently about his desire to educate and inspire. For the African-American community, he wants people to reach back to their roots. “The first music to come out of the mouths of slaves was not gospel. It was slave chants. It was moans and groans that came from the inner man — a sound that came through hardship. Soul is about an active experience.
“The civil rights movement, you know what they did? They took spirituals and they turned them around.” He broke into singing ‘Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.’ Those were spirituals that answered a present-day call. Those people were about change, about movement. Most young people today think Mahalia Jackson was Michael Jackson’s mother. How could you forget these people?”
For the Jewish community, Mr. Nelson’s very presence is an education about Jews of color. Depending on who is counting and what criteria are used, American Jews of African descent are estimated to number from 20,000 to 500,000.
“The idea of a black Jew should not be an anomaly, it should be something normal,” Mr. Nelson. “Judaism is not a race. [It] is a religion and a culture.”
Mr. Nelson talks about the importance in Judaism of tikkun olam — healing the world. “This is my contribution to pushing civilization to where it should go,” he says. “It’s not just a novelty. It’s not just a black guy doing Jewish music. This is Judaism at the core.”
Joshua Nelson has performed with such greats as Aretha Franklin, the Klezmatics, and Wynton Marsalis. He has played for President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the Oprah Winfrey show, and at music festivals around the world.
Several years ago, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center received a grant from the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project to bring more music into the community. The grant has sponsored many concerts and workshops, as well as musical education and a regular klezmer jam group at the synagogue, but the majority of the events were rooted in the Eastern European Jewish culture that is familiar to most Americans.
In a desire to reflect the broader diversity of Judaism, and the fact that Jews come in all colors, the Hebrew Center has invited Mr. Nelson to perform here, funded in part through grants from the Mass Cultural Council and the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project and co-sponsored by the MV NAACP.
“When they leave [the concert], they’re going to feel very good,” Mr. Nelson said ebulliently. “They will feel they’ve come closer to God.”
Joshua Nelson, Tuesday, August 16, 7:30 pm, M.V. Hebrew Center, Center Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets ($20, adult; $10, children 12 and under) available at www.TicketsMV.com/mvhc, M.V. Hebrew Center, Alley’s General Store, Aboveground Records, C’est La Vie, Cousen Rose Gallery, and at the door. For more information, call 508-693-0745.