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Jul 22, 2004 8:28 am

Joshua Nelson, Jewish and African American ...

Atlanta's in the midst of its annual National Black Arts Festival with lots of interesting features. Tonight, my family and I went to a performance by Joshua Nelson at Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was sponsored by Jewish Arts & Culture, Atlanta's new Jewish cultural organization. The venue -- the new, Horizon sanctuary of Martin Luther King's congregation -- is interesting enough. Tonight's audience, however, was largely white and very largely Jewish. Two of Atlanta's notable black women were there: Mayor Shirley Franklin and Dr. Barbara King. My wife, daughter, and I were among the few white gentiles.

Joshua Nelson's performance was truly memorable. He was born and raised in a family of observant orthodox Jews. He grew up observing strict dietary laws and rabbinic practice. On shabbat, the family walked to synagogue and did not touch the light switches at home. They celebrated the Jewish holiday calendar. The only unusual practice was that Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, coincided with Passover and some authorities hold that there is biblical justification for that. But his family was also of African descent. There is no family memory of conversion to Judaism. He believes that in diaspora his ancestors migrated to west Africa and that their Judaism survived the transition to the New World.

But Nelson also grew up listening to the wondrous music of Mahalia Jackson and his voice bears a remarkable resemblance to hers. Now, I am a person who enjoyed music on a black platter. Some of them had big holes in the middle and some of them had small holes in the middle. I made a modest transition to tapes, but my conversion to CDs is far from complete. I own only two CDs, both of them being:"Mahalia Jackson: Gospels, Spirituals, & Hymns." As Tim Tyson says, no day is complete without some Mahalia Jackson. So, when I heard that a black male Jewish Mahalia Jackson was performing at Ebenezer tonight, it became the only thing I needed to hear.

The performance began with an excerpt from a film about Joshua Nelson, "The Keep on Walking: Joshua Nelson Jewish Gospel Singer". It set the scene very well and, when it ended, the choirs of two Jewish synagogues and two Afro-Baptist churches filled the front of Ebenezer's sanctuary. What followed was one of the most remarkable performances I've ever seen. Nelson began with one of Mahalia's classic numbers:"Let There Be Peace On Earth" and continued by interspersing traditional Jewish and gospel hymns. He does not sing gospel songs with any reference to the divinity of Jesus, but"The Lord's Prayer," for example, is good Judaism as it is good Christianity.

Joshua Nelson had his largely white audience on its feet and clapping with virtually every number:"Adon Olam,""Didn't It Rain,""It Don't Cost Much,""Joshua Fit The Battle,""What a Wonderful World,""Hinei Ma Tov," and"Oseh Shalom." (You can hear two brief clips here.) Had he been preaching, the Baptists would have said he was"walkin' the benches". Even so, he carried his song down the aisles and bid us join him. I didn't know the traditional Jewish songs, but I was clapping and singing at every opportunity and dancing in the aisles before it was over. And, now I'm the proud owner of three CDs. My new silver platter with a large hole in the middle is:"Joshua Nelson with the Jubilee Choir Live at the West Hartford Jewish Film Festival." It reproduces tonight's program, except for our closing:"We Shall Overcome." I cannot tell you all that it means to me. Some of us died with its words on our lips.

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/22/2004

I love DNA population studies! Some of the assumptions need more testing (some of the geneaology cited in the King Arthur article on HNN this week seemed, well, historically suspect), but if it all happens quickly enough we'll have a remarkable map of human migrations and connections (if it doesn't happen quickly enough, modern transportation and social mobility will drive us batty). Then we'll have answers to lots of old questions, and questions we haven't even thought of yet.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/22/2004

Right. There are also the recently dna verified Jewish descendents well south of Ethiopia on the east coast of Africa. This is the first suggestion I know of that there was a Jewish community in west Africa.
The New Year's practice is interesting. It seems reasonable to associate the New Year with the events associated with Exodus. In fact, the author of the article I was referencing may be a little confused. If Passover is the beginning of the calendar year, his point about there being a variance with traditional practice may be a problem of mistaken emphasis.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/22/2004

There is, of course, the Ethiopian Jewish population; there's no reason to believe that some Jews wouldn't have travelled further. There was, up to the sixteenth century, a Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, which has gotten plenty of study, too.

The New Year thing is interesting. Passover is the start of the calendar year, technically. The celebration we call "The Head of the Year" (Rosh Hashanah) is based on a bible verse calling for sacrifices (culminating in a day of atonement ten days later) in the seventh month. Somehow that became associated with creation, and the beginning of the period of atonement, and became "New Year." Finally, there is Tu B'Shevat, the day from which trees' ages are counted (for tithing purposes), known as the "New Year For Trees."


Nelson sounds like fun; I'll have to keep him in mind for holiday shopping.

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