Was Elvis Presley Jewish…You Bet Your Bagel He Was
In 1998, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled, “All Shook Up in the Holy Land” exposing Elvis Presley’s unlikely Jewish lineage. Apparently, Elvis’ maternal great-great grandmother, Nancy Burdine, was a Jew. Her daughter gave birth to Doll Mansell who gave birth to Gladys Smith who gave birth to Elvis. Although it sounds improbable, according to Jewish law, which confers Jewish lineage by way of the mother, that makes Elvis Presley Jewish.
Furthermore, this fact was something that Elvis was apparently aware of and even sensitive to. For example, there is a famous picture of Elvis performing in Salt Lake City in 1972 wearing a Jewish “chai” symbol, and when Elvis’ mother Gladys died in 1959 he made sure to put a Jewish Star of David on her headstone. But even if Elvis may have been technically Jewish, and was even aware of his background, he was not at all observant.
There is another Elvis however who is in fact observant. Dan Hartal is the world’s only Orthodox Jewish Elvis impersonator, and goes by the moniker — Elvis Schmelvis.
Hartal’s unusual story begins in an unusual place — the Montreal Hospital of Hope, a home for the aged where Hartal is employed as the Music Coordinator. When he began his work, he wanted to find a way to combine his love of performing for the elderly Jewish residents with his love for Elvis Presley’s music. The result was Elvis songs with a Jewish twist like “Jerusalem Hotel” instead of “Heartbreak Hotel,” or “Love me Blender” instead of “Love me Tender.”
“After one of my performances,” Hartal recalls, “one of the residents said to me, ‘You aren’t Elvis, you’re Schmelvis.'” And “Schmelvis” was born.
Soon thereafter, Schmelvis paired up with documentary filmmaker Max Wallace for another unusual journey. They wanted to make the pilgrimage to Elvis’ home in Graceland and recite kaddish – the Jewish memorial prayer that is recited on the anniversary of someone’s passing – his yahrtzeit. They decided to bring some cameras along and make a film out of their experience.
The result is “Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots,” and the film does exactly that. For example, we learn that Elvis grew up in “the Pinch” — the Jewish quarter of Memphis where his mother worked in the “shmata business,” a predominantly Jewish enterprise at the time. As a teenager the future king was the “Shabbos goy” (i.e. performed tasks otherwise prohibited to Jews on the Sabbath) for his upstairs neighbors at 462 Alabama Ave., Rabbi Alfred and Jeannette Fruchter, who was the Rabbi at the local synagogue. The Presleys regularly came over for Friday night dinner, and Elvis had a penchant for the Rebbetzin’s cooking.
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