One sermon. One Song. One & Only.

One and Only, a new song/video by Josh Nelson, celebrates humanity’s shared connections to the divine and to each other. Watch at: TR.IM/ONEANDONLYJN

A rabbi (who is also one of my dearest friends) once taught me that “everyone only has one sermon…”

I’ve thought deeply about her lesson. While all humans are inherently complex creatures, each of us seems to have a core message, a distilled ideology that shows up (consciously or unconsciously) in our thoughts, our conversations, and our actions.

All things considered, I feel like my personal “one sermon” has more relevance today than ever before. And as Shavuot illuminates our ongoing relationship with Torah, I feel compelled to share it…

At the core of my work, there has always been a simple message that transcends my creative/artistic output, my spiritual journey, and my daily intentionality. It is a personal distillation of Torah that defines my spirit. I have found that it angers a small subset of the Jewish community, those that consider the concept of universal spiritual equality as a heretical idea that challenges their narrow interpretation of the “chosen people” construct. 

Reading back some of my previous writing, I found this passage:

“Monochromatic faith is like tossing a baseball in the air and catching it yourself. Sure, you are technically throwing and catching, but it’s ultimately a poor substitute for tossing the ball around with another person. You learn, you adjust, you see more clearly when another person plays catch with you. You appreciate how the ball approaches you in different ways, and you enjoy throwing it back and forth. It builds camaraderie. It creates relationships. It puts us all on the same field. I want to live in a world where everyone gets to play catch.”

Right now, when we are forced to be apart, it’s more important than ever to remember our shared humanity, to transcend the issues that divide us, and to embrace the fact that despite our temporary physical separation, we are all moving through this life together.

This is my Torah: We are all made of the same stuff. Each of us is created in the divine image, born into a universal family of human beings, and blessed with equal access to God in all of God’s forms. There is nothing more powerful than this unbreakable, holy connection we share.

When weighed against our similarities, our differences are strikingly minimal. Though each of us is beautifully unique in our own way, we are still kindred beings. And when we focus on what connects us rather than what separates us, we cannot help but grow closer to God and to each other.

“If your God is my God, and my God is everything,
aren’t we all, aren’t we all, part of one God?
So, let your God be my God and our God be everything.
Oh, we’ll all know we’re all part of one God.

So, open up your heart, to all the lost and lonely.
Let no one be 
alone tonight, 
before our One and Only.”

These lyrics have become the chorus of a new song/video called “One and Only.” If you’d like to check out how this “one sermon” was expressed as art, it is available here: tr.im/OneandOnlyJN

Wishing you a deep and meaningful Shavuot.

Be strong and stay safe.



Discovering Roots, Climbing Trees, & Choosing Paths

My earliest memory of Jewish prayer involves me sitting in shul on the high holidays, scrunched up between my father and my grandfather. I was young, perhaps 3 or 4, and I sat with the siddur open in my lap, blissfully unaware of what was happening all around me. I certainly didn’t grasp how lucky I was to have been there, seated between my patriarchs in a rare moment of serious, intentional spirituality.

So, I did what lots of kids do…

I played with the tzitzit (fringes) that hung from their tallisim (prayer shawls).

It’s a powerful memory. I’ve never forgotten it.

Like many descendants of Eastern European Jewry, my ancestral history is pretty foggy.

Dinner table conversations provided only scant details of our family’s narrative. We knew that we’d come from somewhere in Belarus, and that we had lots and lots of cousins around the world.

That was it.

So, I’ve made my way through a Jewish life with only anecdotal details of who I really am.

“Josh, you’re a Kohen. Our family descends from the priesthood…”

“You come from a long line of rabbis and Jewish intellectuals…”

“Your cousins are important members of the Jewish people around the world…”

These stories always seemed broad and unsubstantiated, and they did little to help solidify a personal connection to my own history. Frankly, I thought the stories were fabricated so that we all might feel better about our disconnection.

Clues were scarce. Before Ellis Island, our family name was Katznelson. I recall the day when I first discovered Google, and that my earliest searches were for that name. Predictably, the results were overwhelming, and sensing a needle/haystack situation, I quickly abandoned the approach. I resigned myself to accepting the disconnect between my deep involvement with contemporary Jewish life and the sadness I felt whenever I considered my own place within it.

Then, about a year ago, it happened.

An ad popped up online for one of the many genealogical research websites available today. On a whim, and with the assumption that I’d find nothing new, I signed up and dove in.

At first, I found little of substance beyond a few historical facts I already knew. My family had left the shtetl and arrived in New York with new names, new stories, and new identities. There was no way to connect the dots to their lives in the old world.

Then, in a life-altering twist, a distant relative saw the small family tree I’d assembled online. She wrote to me… and included a link to a ship manifest.

Suddenly, everything clicked.

Since that day, I’ve uncovered my lineage going back seven generations. It’s changed me, clearing the lens through which I see the world. I look into the eyes of my ancestors as they peer up at me from the grainy, wrinkled photographs I’ve discovered online. I say their names aloud, and I wonder if they were funny, if they sang, if they prayed…

I’ve learned of my family’s role in establishing the state of Israel, of the poetry and literature we’ve created, and of the deep Jewish connection that binds us all together.

I’ve also discovered that the vast majority of my family was killed by the Nazis on a single day in 1941.

The trees of our personal histories stretch us in two directions, both deep into the ground and high up into the sky. They pull us back to our roots, while also pushing us to discover something more… something that feels like God.

As I’ve come to understand this, I’ve felt a strong sense of personal evolution. I’ve continued to search for a deeper connection to my family history, sensing its importance in a new and profound way. I’ve experienced this most acutely when connecting with my kids, and I’ve felt a strong impulse to provide them with the very same historical ties that were conspicuously absent for me. Everything is changing.

Change doesn’t come without hard choices.

I’ve slowed down my pace. I’ve made a conscious effort to be more present in my daily life, in my spiritual work, and in my personal relationships. And, after 15 years of leading high holiday services, I’ve decided to take a sabbatical this year during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. While I love and deeply value my congregation, I also truly need this break. I’m lucky to be surrounded by extraordinary friends and colleagues, friends who have been amazingly supportive of this decision and have understood its deep import to me.

I am growing, and I’ve decided to do my best to honor that growth.

Though it may feel odd, I will not chant Kol Nidre this year. I will not blow the shofar. I will not sing songs of remembrance at Yizkor.

Instead, for the first time in my life, I’m going to spend Yom Kippur in the pews with my kids. I will sit between them, placing siddurim in their laps, and helping them to find the correct page.

And perhaps, as I’ve dreamed, they will each reach down and hold my tzitzit in their hands…

Ken y’hi ratzon.

May it be God’s will.



**Cross-posted from Times of Israel, 3/21/19


The Freedom to Believe

The season of our unleavening cometh, and with it, my most important Passover ritual…


Tonight, I’ll sit with my kids for our annual viewing of The Prince of Egypt.


While we always choose to participate in a seder with friends and family, the film seems to reach them more deeply than the ritual. I reminded them today that Pesach is coming fast, and my youngest exclaimed “WE’RE GONNA WATCH THAT MOVIE!!”


(Please don’t tell my Bubbe.)


I refuse to lie to my kids (except about the hard truth that I did, in fact, quietly replace our family’s pet fish multiple times over the course of several years … [Daddy? Why did Dorothy turn blue?]  In the past, they’ve asked me if I believe in God, and I’ve always told them that I do. And now, as they approach the halfway point of their grade school years, their questions are becoming more pointed.


My truth: I believe in God. (Most days.)


And, I haven’t yet come to understand what this actually means.


I am acutely aware that I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than all of us. I can feel that. I do feel that. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. I sense it when I pray, when I cry, when I make love. I feel it with abundance in my professional work, in those moments when I’m focused on trying to help others feel that same connection.


For me, the real challenge lies in the grey area between what I believe and how I believe…


I want to trust in this powerful spirituality to which I’ve been exposed, whether I’ve encountered it through conversation, formal study, or private learning. I really, really do…


Sometimes, I just can’t.


I often wonder… am I missing something that others are not?


Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend/rabbi who good-naturedly described his Passover voyage to Monsey, NY to stock his kitchen for the holiday. Some of the broader details weren’t entirely new to me – I’ve kept a kosher kitchen at home in the past - but I found his tale of this annual pilgrimage (and its implication of serious commitment to halachic minutiae as demonstrated by most of the market’s customers) to be quite amazing.


I left our meal repeating the same question in my mind: How much is enough?


Thousands and thousands make the trek to this Monsey grocery to buy hard-to-find items like kosher-for-Pesach dish soap. [*Note: the OU says Pesach-certified dish soap is not actually necessary, but nonetheless, you can buy it, and lots of people do…]


I can’t help but wonder: Am I simply not holding up my end of my God-relationship because the highest levels of ritual observance are not particularly meaningful to me? (To be clear: I intend no disrespect toward those who make such choices. I’m actually caught up in a mix of wonderment and mild jealousy… I wish that the minutia moved me more, and I am mildly envious of the enculturation that fertilizes the absolute conviction evident in such cases).


Or, am I simply still reeling from that weekend in high school when I first read Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed, and encountered a God-concept that I found to be both deeply resonant and fiercely challenging?


The more I grow, the less I know.


The world is pretty screwed up for all of us these days. I need not review why… I, like you, can’t help but be aware of our current global state. Whatever your leanings, whether you’re a socio-political southpaw or otherwise, you are most certainly drenched from the daily onslaught of opinion that rains down on all of us.


At once, we push and pull at the lines that demarcate our liberty. We march, we rally, we despair, we resolve. We mourn our dead. We dream that tomorrow will be different, that we will escape the reign of whatever modern-day (occasionally orange) Pharaoh that aims to re-enact the ancient tale of our personal and communal enslavement in a dystopian fashion.


As evidenced by our long human history, this is a cyclical narrative, a story trapped in its own retelling… an ancient tome, now conveniently downloadable to your Kindle in an all-new translation.


Our lives are not simple; not cut and dry, nor black and white. (Apologies to those in our community who happen to prefer that color scheme.)


Our text teaches us that the Israelites grew weary of their desert journey (sans GPS), and suffered from what Steven Lee has aptly termed “the deadly disease of spiritual amnesia.”


Having spent some significant time internally reflecting on this, I have managed to distill my internal monologue down to this small piece of personal Torah:



When we shield ourselves from the challenges faced by others…


When we surround ourselves with insular comfort at the expense of global citizenship…


When we focus solely on the me at the expense of the we...


… that is when we've lost God.



When we open our hearts to the entirety of our divine humanity…


When we refuse to accept our world as it is…


When we turn our thoughts to the physical, spiritual, and emotional emancipation of every soul that walks this earth…


… that is when God will be found.




May this season of freedom, however we personally choose to embrace it, inspire us to recognize that our story, like our freedom, belongs to all of humanity.


Ken yehi ratzon - May it be so.


Chag sameach.



Really Listening...

Occasionally, my professional work pays parental dividends...

Tonight, an hour after his bedtime, Zach (age 9) came down the stairs declaring that something was urgently wrong with his piano music. 

(When my kids were younger, I wrote and recorded a short album of piano lullabies to help them sleep through the night. The lullabies play through powered speakers in their bedroom, keeping the kids calm and helping to dampen the noise from the Brooklyn streets below. I keep the album up on Spotify for easy access when we travel, and they listen to it most nights as part of their bedtime ritual.)

I followed Zach up to his bedroom. He brought over his iPad, opened up Spotify, and clicked on a specific track in his "Daddy's Relaxing Piano Lullabies" playlist. 

We listened together until he quickly stopped the song.

Zach: "Did you hear it? It's *that* note. That one note. Every time it comes, it makes me crazy. It's keeping me up."

(He seemed quite serious about the whole thing.)

Me: "Sweetie... I'm pretty sure it sounded just fine."

I scrolled back and replayed the passage, and he pointed out the very same note. We listened again, but I still didn't hear anything unusual.

Rubbing his eyes, he yawned that "the note was really-seriously-super-screechy-weird-sounding before... but... it's much better now."

(I smiled, quietly amused by this apparent exercise in bedtime-avoidance.)

As all was now apparently resolved, I tucked him back into his bed, kissed his forehead, and said goodnight. He held onto my hand and asked me if I'd lie down with him until he fell asleep. So, I restarted the Spotify playlist and curled up beside him.

About 5 minutes later, I sat straight up.

The poor kid was reacting to specific piano pitches from the recording that interacted with the correlative resonant frequencies of his bedroom. When we knelt by the door with his iPad, everything sounded fine. When we lay down in his bed, "that one note" popped out like an angry glockenspiel.

In the end, after a quick dance with the equalizer, my boy was quietly snoring once again....

And as I closed his door, I promised myself that I'd listen a little more critically next time... not to the music, but to my child. 

- AudioDad, out.



On Freedom...



Full Stop.

Take a breath.


Now, ask yourself this:

“Am I free?”


[Insert pause for self-reflection here.]


I think I’ve asked myself that question thousands of times in the past year. Obviously, I enjoy a level of freedom unheard of in other parts of the world; I exercise free will, I make (hopefully good) choices, and I decide what kind of relationship I want to maintain with both those I love and those who I hope to grow to love. Nonetheless, I still ask myself the question all the time.


I don’t ask because my rights have been restricted, or my personal freedoms have been constrained. I simply ask because I’m so, so scared.

Hard truth: We’re all scared.


[To be clear: if you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.]


Globally, we’re scared of losing sight of who we hope to be. We’re scared of passive acquiescence replacing the fire of necessary resistance, scared of the very foundation of our global community enduring tremendous damage, and scared of our society regressing to a time when we undoubtedly experienced an inferior form of freedom. Big picture: our collective sense of self is bending under the weight of fear, and our anxiety has reached a peak level we have not known in years.


Like you, I’m also scared on a personal level. I’m scared that the personal growth and extraordinary happiness I’ve discovered in the past year will somehow leave me. Scared that the person I want to become will never be free of the fears and doubts I’ve tried to leave behind. Scared that I’ll continue to live in subtle fear of the ones who’ve hurt me deeply in the past, those lingering antagonists who still occasionally call my name aloud if only to see me shiver as I look back over my shoulder…


I need this Pesach so badly. I need it because I need to be reminded.


Passover speaks to the ongoing relationship between individual acts of courage and faith and communal acts of love and positive intentionality. It sheds light on the triangular relationship that exists between faith, freedom, and action. A community cannot be redeemed without the strength of its individuals. And, an individual will struggle to find redemption without the embrace of a community.

Pesach reminds us that things will only begin to get better when we each take an active role in making it better. We must stand up and speak out, and not retreat quietly down the path of shrugged-shoulders and averted eyes.


I've thought deeply in the past few weeks about what it means to stand up and to speak out in the context of my own work. Last week, I drew deeply from my circle of friends and brought together a band of twelve extraordinary musicians to spend the day talking, learning, and making music together in New York City. In this safe space of community and creativity, we laughed, jammed, and connected deeply to the music and to each other. Arranged in a circle, we recorded a medley of Avadim Hayinu (a traditional Pesach melody) and Wade in the Water (a widely-known African-American spiritual), material that illustrated the core narrative of our discussion that day: The story of freedom belongs to everyone, and the only way forward is together.


I'm so grateful that our experience was captured on film, and that I can share it with you now. Click here to check it out.


On Monday evening, millions of souls will gather around the Seder table to read these words aloud:


Avadim hayinu, ata b’nei chorin.

Once, we were slaves. Now, we are free.


Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will.