Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Kosher Gospel

I often like to use this blog to introduce you to things you might not know about. Hat tip to my pal Renee for this post. There is a very special singer out there. Have you ever heard of Joshua Nelson? He was discovered by Oprah but don't hold that against him.

"We've been Jews for centuries, as long as anyone can remember," Nelson says. "Why is it that when people of color are Jews, questions are raised?"

That's right. Joshua Nelson, whose style has been compared to the late Mahalia Jackson, is black and Jewish.

Nelson is one of about 100,000 nonwhite Americans who were born Jewish. Another 300,000 people of color are followers of Judaism through marriage, adoption, conversion or the recent surge of Jewish immigrants from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, according to Yavilah McCoy, director of Ayecha, a New York-based group she founded five years ago to reach out to Jewish minorities.
Among black Jews, "you see the flavor of Jewish culture in a way you might not have seen before, when it was just black and white, so to speak — as in, Christians and non-Christians," says McCoy, 33, who is black and raised in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, where she studied in a yeshiva with other Orthodox Jews.

The two communities have much in common, but lately divisions between the two have been more apparent.

The civil rights era made Jews and blacks close allies, but incidents like the Crown Heights riots of 1991 have put a heavy strain on the ties between the groups — a paradox to McCoy.

"Jews have been oppressed. And African-Americans have been oppressed," she says. "When a soul endures, there's something very beautiful in its music. It's not just oppression, but the spirit of joy that overcomes oppression — something so powerful that it's explosive."

And that expression of joy is prevelant whenever Joshua Nelson makes his beautiful music soar.

It was the sound of Jackson's recorded voice that first seduced Nelson when he was 8, living in Brooklyn with five siblings; their father worked as a truck driver, and their mother was a nurse. The fascination with Jackson's voice lasted after he graduated from Newark's Performing Arts High School and went on to sing at the funeral of another graduate, Sarah Vaughan.

While attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he started blending Hebrew texts with gospel melodies — or arranging Jewish hymns in gospel style, resulting in solo CDs like "Hebrew Soul."

He occasionally sings a real Christian gospel hymn — "for historical purposes" — but his "kosher gospel" avoids any mention of Jesus.

While Nelson is very comfortable in his own skin, it doesn't mean that others in the black community feel the same way about him.

Nelson says he resents the suggestion "that we need to come back to our faith," as one black minister put it.

"I told him, 'It's weird the way black Christians look at us as sort of strange. We came off the boat Jews. You didn't come off the boat Christians. Your faith was given to you by a slavemaster.'"

If you get the chance, check him out.


At 3:31 PM, Blogger Sergeant America said...

Thanks for the info!

I would have made a glib comment, but it wouldn't be Kosher ... ;)

At 4:19 PM, Blogger MissingLink said...

Funny, you mentioned this.
I met Vietnamese Jews when I was in Tel Aviv in 1997.
Not to mention the Jewish Ethiopians.

At 6:24 PM, Blogger patrickafir said...

Awesome—I wanna hear him now!

I was thinking the same thing, Felis. In that picture essay, Girls of the IDF, there's a very pretty black girl.

At 12:22 AM, Blogger Gindy said...

Very interesting. I will have to keep my ears open for his music.

At 3:14 AM, Blogger Sergeant America said...

Not to mention the Jewish Ethiopians.

Felis ... that's what I was "thinking!" ;)

At 3:16 AM, Anonymous Rory said...

I know this is somewhat off the topic, but those Vietnamese Israelis, that Felis mentioned, are an interesting group. They were boat people, who were turned away by every other country they sought refuge in, and only the Israelis agreed to take them in. (Somehow, not a single one of the Arab countries could find room for them). But, they seem to have adjusted quite well to life in Israel, with several of them becoming owners of very popular Asian restaurants in Tel Aviv.

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Esther said...

I didn't know that Rory. VERY interesting!

At 7:14 PM, Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

I didn't know about the Vietnamese Jews either. Any links?

At 12:42 AM, Anonymous Rory said...

I wish I could provide some links to this story, but I'm afraid I don't know of any offhand. If I can come up with anything, though, I'll get back with it. I'm not certain, but I think the rescue may have taken place some time in the 1980's because I know that, when I was in Israel in 1993, these people were already pretty well-established. Also, their situation was different from that of any of the other groups, like the Ethiopians or the Yemenites, where the Israelis undertook a campaign to rescue them because, as Jews, they were living a very precarious existence. The Vietnamese refugees weren't Jews, but they were welcomed by the government as a humanitarian gesture. The best thing of all, though, is that this is a genuine success story with both the Israelis and the former "boat people" benefitting greatly from the relationship.


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