Most middle school students don’t give much thought to a future career, but Joshua Nelson certainly did. At thirteen, the East Orange native already was singing professionally, performing traditional Jewish songs and African-American spirituals at his synagogue, the Congregation of the House of Israel in Brooklyn. At fifteen he sang at the funeral of famed jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan and later would graduate from her alma mater, Newark’s Arts High School.
He pursued his passion in college, studying for two years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Hebrew Union College in Israel. As he grew professionally, Nelson, whose voice was often compared to that of late gospel great Mahalia Jackson, thought about somehow linking traditional Christian gospel with Jewish liturgy and song. But the idea didn’t fully come to life until his friend David Sky, the late owner of Maplewood’s Rabbi L. Sky Hebrew Bookstore, encouraged him. “He knew I was a big fan of Mahalia Jackson and said I should combine gospel and Jewish music,” says Nelson, who calls his creation Kosher Gospel. “I started doing it, and people loved it because it’s something no one has ever done.”
Now 29, Nelson has performed nationally and internationally in his ever-present Middle Eastern robe and hat, appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, opening for Aretha Franklin, and singing with the Klezmatics. He’ll perform on the 22nd at the Long Beach Island Foundation for Arts and Sciences (609-492-4090).
Nelson still finds time for his community, serving as the director of music at Hopewell Baptist Church in Newark and as a Hebrew teacher at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. “I’ve taken success gradually,” he says. “I could be performing at Carnegie Hall one night and turn around the next day and go to synagogue to teach my Hebrew classes.”