Joshua Nelson doesn’t want to hear the Sammy Davis Jr. jokes. He’s heard them all.
“I actually used to get offended by them. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re a black Jew, just like Sammy Davis, right?’ ” Nelson said. “That fact is that I didn’t convert to Judaism. I was born Jewish.”
As a Hebrew schoolteacher, he wants to educate. As a singer, he wants to entertain.
Nelson did both at a recent performance at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, N.J. With his band, the Kosher Gospel Singers, he belted out his distinctive combination of traditional Jewish and gospel music for a crowd of about 300.
The 30-year-old singer said he takes traditional Jewish lyrics, then adds soulful gospel backup singers and gospel-style bass, drums and piano. Sing the song as you would at any black Baptist church in America, and the formula is complete, Nelson said.
“There are about 100,000 black Jews in America,” Nelson told the crowd after his song “Observant Jew,” an original on his latest album. “We try to keep the Jewish community educated that there are different Jewish cultures all over the world.”
Nelson, who grew up in Newark, N.J., and now lives in East Orange, N.J., said it was natural for him to combine his love of Judaism and gospel music into what he calls “kosher gospel.”
“Aretha Franklin took soul elements and combined it with R&B;,” he said. “Jewish music is about the lyrics, not the music itself. All I’m doing is marrying black music to Jewish music.”
On his album “Hallelujah, It’s Shabbos” (Sabbath), Nelson takes traditional prayers and sets them to gospel music.
Music critics have likened Nelson’s voice to that of Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer.
Through his music, Nelson not only livens up what could be seen as a dull ceremony, -- he said some of the traditional songs “needed help” -- he also tries to bring Jewish people of all cultures together, as they do in other countries: “In America, I have to explain my existence,” he said. But in Israel, “there are Jews of all colors.”