Joshua Nelson
Listen to the "Prince of Kosher Gospel"
“Gospel music” and “Judaism” rarely appear in the same sentence, let alone the same performance, but one black Jew believes the two are made for each other. And by spicing up Jewish liturgical music through a style he’s termed “Kosher Gospel,” he’s giving his listeners a reason to put their hands together.

Joshua Nelson, 29, who calls himself the “Prince of Kosher Gospel,” was raised in East Orange, N.J. There he sought to bring together his love for his African heritage–his mother’s family, from Senegal, is Jewish–with his faith as an Orthodox Jew.

Listen to "Adon Olam"
It wasn’t long before Nelson, who came up with the idea for “Kosher Gospel” when he was 15, found his answer in music. “When you hear the lyrics going along with [traditional Jewish] music, I don’t think they complement each other,” said Nelson, who began performing kosher gospel when he was 19. “I think the words are so powerful that they need to be matched by music that is powerful like gospel. The music should parallel the lyrics.”

Growing up black and Jewish wasn’t always easy for Nelson and his five siblings; they often had to explain who they were to Christians and Jews, blacks and whites. “Inside of my home with my parents, it was no problem because we were all Jews,” Nelson said. “But when we ventured outside of our houses it was different because people didn’t know we existed.” So how does Nelson blend Jewish observance with black-American culture? “We eat southern foods like collard greens and macaroni and cheese, they just are kosher,” Nelson said. “You wouldn’t find a pig in our collard greens. Everything is eaten according to Jewish law in the African-American soul tradition.”

Listen to "Mi Chamocha"
Gospel music, according to Nelson, grew out of the pain of African slaves. It’s an intrinsically soulful music that moves people. Because there are no prohibitions in Judaism against introducing new melodies or rhythms, for liturgical music, he decided that bringing gospel music together with Jewish verse was a match made in heaven.

“There are lots of occurrences in the Torah about being in situations where God assisted,” Nelson said. “This is a double play, because black Americans shared the same slave history as ancient Hebrews, so they fit so well.”

Many of his fans say that Nelson’s voice bears a striking resemblance to the late gospel great Mahalia Jackson, who was known as the “Queen of Gospel.” Nelson says that he discovered Jackson’s music at the age of eight when he found an LP of her greatest hits at his grandmother’s house.
She’s been his personal inspiration ever since. He considers himself the heir to her gospel legacy -hence his moniker, “The Prince of Kosher Gospel.” But the name originated in his black Hebrew synagogue, where the boys were called “princes.”