Kosher Gospel comes to CRC

Kosher Gospel comes to CRC


If you had walked by the sanctuary of Central Reform Congregation on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 5, and had listened closely, you might have thought that you were listening to a highly-energetic Gospel choir. That’s because Joshua Nelson, the Prince of Kosher Gospel, and his musicians were filling CRC with his Gospel renditions of traditional, and not so traditional, Jewish prayers and songs.

Nelson, accompanied by his musical director on piano and three back-up singers, came to town as part of CRC’s annual Spiritual Enrichment Weekend. And his rousing music was an appropriate way to mark the end of a weekend that focused on diversity. In his opening remarks, Nelson talked a bit about his background. “I was influenced by the music of Mahalia Jackson,” Nelson said. “But as a little Jewish boy growing up, Gospel style of music wasn’t part of Judaism.” So, as a counter to the liturgical music he grew up with, he decided to create his own brand of Jewish music. He believes his music brings young people back to the synagogue because they like the innovations he is making to traditional songs. His music also celebrates the diversity of Judaism.

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The diverse attendees to Sunday’s concert were treated to an exciting performance that exposed them to familiar words sung to new tunes. Adon Olam was given a double make-over as Nelson sang two versions of it. And those versions were definitely in the tradition of Gospel singing and old spirituals. The audience quickly got into the rhythm of this new way of singing and praying and echoed back the appropriate chorus when cued.

Nelson, who is an Orthodox Jew, put a smile on many faces, along with a few chuckles, when he launched into his all-English song I Want To Be A More Observant Jew. When he began singing Mi Chamocha in his own unique style, it was clear that this prayer was no longer your grandfather’s Mi Chamocha. Even the traditional prayer said before the tefillah was not immune to Nelson’s touch.

He infused those customary words with the tune from Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song and produced something completely different.

Nelson encouraged the audience to sing along, once they learned the new tunes. For Hineh Ma Tov, which started out with a traditional treatment, he asked the women to sing a chorus first, followed by the men, for a bit of friendly singing competition.

Nelson then told a story of the time when he asked his rabbi if he could sing When the Saints Come Marching In because he really loved the song. His rabbi informed him that that was not an appropriate song for their shul. So, Nelson did what he does best: He took the familiar tune that he loved and transformed the song into something Jewish by adding the words to Hineh Ma Tov.

“Who ever said that going to temple had to be boring?” Nelson asked rhetorically. “I try to make music so the listener will hear something and feel it as well. A temple member once said to me after a concert, ‘Joshua, when you sing, you give me goose-pimples.’ I remarked, they aren’t goose pimples, it’s your nefesh (soul) speaking to you, and you don’t even know it’s there.”

Nelson’s strong powerful tenor voice clearly helped the audience realize their nefesh during the moving song of peace, Shalom Rav. Accompanied solely by the piano, he sang with such emotion and feeling that a quick look at the faces of the attendees revealed an audience that was visibly moved by his singing.

The attendees were treated to a Gospel-rendition of Sunrise, Sunset and then they were on their feet dancing and singing to the final song of the afternoon, Lo Yisa Goy, a traditional Hanukkah song, put to the tune of Down By The Riverside. As people sang and danced out the door, sales of Nelson’s latest CD, Mi Chamocha, were brisk. Apparently the Prince of Kosher Gospel left a soulful impression on some of St. Louis’s residents.