Saturday, the gospel singer went to shul
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 2, 2002) – Joshua Nelson isn’t your ordinary gospel singer. For one, when he wakes up in the morning, one of the first things he does is to don tefillin, the leather straps and boxes that Orthodox Jews wear during the morning prayer service. For another, he keeps kosher, meaning he follows Jewish dietary laws, and he doesn’t work on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
Joshua Nelson isn’t your typical Jew, either. For one, he is black, and while there is nothing particularly extraordinary about that, Nelson traces his Jewish heritage back many generations, all the way to his family’s roots in West Africa. He speculates that his forebears fled the ancient land of Israel when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, and instead of going north to Europe they went west to Africa.
Nelson is also more learned about his religion than your average, liberal American Jew. He is a teacher at a Reform temple’s religious school, tutoring candidates for the coming-of-age ritual known as bar mitzvah and teaching them about ethics, the Hebrew prayerbook, and how to chant from the Torah.
But what makes Nelson perhaps the oddest Orthodox Jew you are likely to meet is that he is a highly-acclaimed singer of spirituals and gospels, music typically associated with Christianity, and songs that often praise Jesus as “the Lord.”
“Jesus was as Jewish as you get,” said Nelson in a recent phone interview from his home in Newark. “To me, he’s just very Jewish. Even his name is Jewish. The whole idea about messiah, and dying and resurrection, that’s a very Jewish concept.”
Nelson is the subject of an award-winning documentary that explores the walking contradiction of a Black, Jewish gospel singer. “Keep on Walking” will kick off this summer’s Berkshire Jewish Film Festival at Congregation Knesset Israel in Pittsfield on Monday at 7:30 p.m. The screening will be followed by a concert featuring Nelson. Freke Vuijst, a co-director and producer of the film who lives in Great Barrington, will also be on hand to talk about the film and answer questions. For more information call 443-2134.
For Vuijst, Nelson’s story was a natural subject for her documentarian’s eye. An immigrant from Holland, Vuijst is drawn to stories that go to the heart of the American experience, particularly stories about how people construct identities from mixed backgrounds. It’s not an academic concern for Vuijst; her daughter has a Dutch mother and a Jewish father, a topic explored in “The Half-Jewish Book,” which she co-wrote with her husband, Daniel Klein.
Vuijst’s filmmaking partner, Tana Ross, discovered Nelson in New York when he performed a gospel concert with his choir at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Ross, a Jew from Sweden, instantly recognized in Nelson the elements of an all-American melting pot story, and he suggested to Vuijst that they make a film about him.
Nelson says he was raised by his mother and grandmother in a strictly Jewish home. No pork was eaten, light switches were left untouched on Saturdays, and they walked to synagogue. The major Jewish holidays were all celebrated in his house, although by their account, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, coincided with Passover – a reading of the Jewish calendar for which there is indeed Biblical justification.
It wasn’t until later in his life, when he first began working at a Reform Jewish temple, that Nelson saw evidence of a Judaism different from the one he had known – a less strict, liberal version of the Orthodoxy he thought was mainstream.
“When I went to the Reform temple, I was blown away,” he said. “I didn’t know there were Jews who ate pork and didn’t observe Shabbat. If you didn’t believe in G-d the way I was brought up, you were popped in the head. In Reform, it’s left up to the person to make his own decision.”
In spite of his strict Jewish upbringing, Nelson was exposed early on to gospel music from a Mahalia Jackson album that belonged to his grandmother.
“She didn’t play it that much, but I liked it and listened to it a lot and began to sing like her,” he said. Jackson wasn’t strictly a gospel singer – she sang folk songs and show tunes and jazz, too. Nelson says he even has a record of her singing “Hava Nagila” and “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
As an early teen-ager, Nelson began showing great promise as a singer. He attended the High School of the Arts in Newark, and he became musical director at the Hopewell Baptist Church when he was 21.
The fact that he was Jewish never mattered to anyone who came to hear him sing gospel, he says.
“When I first started out, I thought it would be a major problem,” he said. “I
wasn’t even going to tell them. Most of the time I tell people I’m Jewish, they don’t believe me anyway. But when you don’t say you are and they find out about it, then they do make a big deal about it.”
Now that audiences know he is Jewish, oftentimes they ask him to sing some Jewish songs, and he obliges.
Nelson avoids singing songs that overtly refer to Jesus as G-d, or to the trinity. But there are plenty of spirituals that are based on stories from the Jewish Bible – numbers like “Go Down Moses” – and Nelson is able to reconcile his religious beliefs with the message of gospel songs by emphasizing the ethical lessons of Jesus the historical figure, lessons that he feels are strongly rooted in Jesus’s Judaism.
“I put it back into its Jewish context,” he said. “There is a common bond between Jews and Christians in tolerance and pursuing peace. They are basic things that both hold true to.”
Nelson is also motivated personally by being the living incarnation of love between Blacks and Jews. “The best thing I like about it is bringing Blacks and Jews together, because I hear the racism on both sides,” he said. “People say things out of ignorance because they don’t know better.
“But through the music we get together. We all get in the room, hear the music, and whatever you are, when the music gets good, everybody responds.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 5, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]