Don’t be a stereotypical Jew this Christmas. There are more exciting ways to spend the day than eating Chinese food and watching movies. Instead, if you’re in New York, head over to the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 1 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. for a Kosher Gospel Choir.
Yes, you read that correctly: Kosher Gospel Choir.
But what makes a gospel choir kosher, you ask? “The marriage of Jewish religious lyrics and meanings with the soulful sounds of American gospel music,” according to Joshua Nelson, the self-proclaimed Prince of Kosher Gospel. Nelson cultivated his Jewish roots attending Reform synagogue in Brooklyn and New Jersey, and discovered gospel through a Mahlia Jackson record at his grandmother’s house. “I take everything I know musically and channel it into my Judaism,” Nelson said in an earlier interview with Tablet. “If I need to get a certificate of kosher approval, I could easily get that.” His performance with the Klezmatics, the only Grammy-winning klezmer band, might just be that stamp of approval.
Nelson attributes the easy connection between prayer and gospel to the melisma common in both—you know, when the cantor extends every vowel and letter so one word, even one syllable, can last for minutes. They do that in Gospel music too. According to the Jewish Week, Nelson has “created a breathtaking musical synthesis that unites the metered hymn tradition that grew from the 18th-century compositions of Englishman Isaac Watts and the African-inspired rhythms that black gospel singers used to underpin it, with Hebrew liturgy, Jewish theology and Yiddish soul.”
As Nelson observes, “There’s always call and response in the synagogue, even in the most formal Reform congregations. You have the same setup in gospel. In the old Baptist churches in the African-American community, the whole congregation was the choir, responding to the preacher, and that corresponds to the Hebrew service.”
“We perform in a lot of Reform synagogues and people are not quite sure how to behave,” he says. “My thing is to show them that clapping your hands and dancing is also Jewish. I always tell them, ‘I want you to break the stereotype that Jews don’t have rhythm.’”
So don’t just be a stereotypical Jew this Christmas. Get your Kosher Gospel on.
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Lauren Schwartzberg is an intern at Tablet Magazine.