Nancy begat Martha who begat Doll who begat Gladys who begat … Elvis. The genealogy might not sound quite biblical, but apparently it is Jewish. Elvis Presley (that swivel-hipped American icon) was the scion of an uninterrupted female line beginning with his great-great-grandmother, Nancy Tackett, nee Burdine, who is believed to have been Jewish. According to the Jewish law of matrilineal descent, that would make the King of rock ‘n’ roll a member of the Tribe.
Had Elvis, who died in 1977, set out to trace his heritage, he could have turned to any of the 80 Jewish genealogical services that have sprung up worldwide in the past quarter century. He would not have needed to trek around Tennessee in a Winnebago. But that is what three Canadian filmmakers did, together with a cigarette-smoking, wise-cracking rabbi and an Orthodox Elvis impersonator with a drive to proselytize.
The bizarre and hilarious result is "Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots." The 76-minute film has its New York premiere at Makor next week, two months after its Canadian debut. An Elvis tribute performed by the Loser’s Lounge band, part of Makor’s vaudeville-tinged "What I Like About Jew" music series, rounds out the program commemorating the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death.
The story of Elvis’ Jewish lineage was noted in Elaine Dundy’s 1985 biography, "Elvis and Gladys." The Wall Street Journal cited the book in a 1998 article about a biennial gathering of Elvis fans at the Elvis Inn, a gas station and cafe outside Jerusalem. That article in turn inspired the filmmakers’ quest, which took them from Montreal to Memphis, then to Israel and back.
"I never thought there would be deep meaning in Elvis’ Jewish roots," the film’s director and writer Max Wallace told The Jewish Week. Instead, he set out to make "a light, off-beat documentary," having previously filmed the award-winning examination of racism in Canadian hockey, "Too Colourful for the League," with fellow "Schmelvis" creators Evan Beloff and Ari Cohen.
Their new film, however, does have some profound moments. During a stop at the Elvis Inn, for example, Schmelvis (the Elvis impersonator whose real name is Dan Hartal) charms an enthusiastic group of Palestinian children. "For a brief, shining moment," Wallace says, "Schmelvis brought peace to the Middle East." In the end, the film reveals more about the Winnebago passengers’ views on Jewish identity and about what Wallace refers to as the "New South."
"We were expecting to find anti-Semitism in the South," he says of the group’s trip through Kentucky and Tennessee. "We even tried to provoke anti-Semitism to the point of telling people we were Jewish. But we just could not find any." Today, he says, "Rednecks and Klansmen are the lunatic fringe."
That clearly wasn’t the case when Elvis Aaron Presley was growing up in "the Pinch," the Jewish quarter of Memphis. Wallace says Elvis was advised by his father, Vernon, and his manager, Col. Tom Parker, to downplay his Jewish ancestry. Elvis’ hairdresser and spiritual adviser, Larry Geller, recently told Wallace that Gladys Presley gave her son the same advice "because people didn’t like Jews."
Wallace says Geller told him that if Elvis had understood that having a Jewish great-great-grandmother made him Jewish, "He would have become a full-fledged practicing Jew."
Plenty of evidence points to Elvis’ affinity for things Jewish. Early in the film, a New York-based private investigator named Steven Rambam tells the filmmakers that Elvis used the code name Col. Burdine in his obsessive correspondence with the FBI. He reportedly donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Memphis Jewish Welfare Fund, and played racquetball late at night at the Memphis Jewish Community Center.
Years after Gladys died, Elvis had a Star of David inscribed on her gravestone. (The stone was removed when the grave was moved to a new location.) During his final years, Elvis wore a large, gold necklace with a "chai" pendant. He was said to be wearing it when he died at age 42 in the bathroom of his Memphis mansion, Graceland.
The filmmakers document Jewish aspects of Elvis’ young life, too. As a teenager, he received a scholarship to day camp from the Jewish community. The future King was the "Shabbos goy" for his upstairs neighbors at 462 Alabama Ave., Rabbi Alfred and Jeannette Fruchter, turning on lights and doing other tasks prohibited to Jews on the Sabbath.
Jeannette Fruchter tells the "Schmelvis" crew that the Presleys came regularly to Friday-night dinner. "Elvis loved our food," she says in the film’s companion book, "Schmelvis" (ECW Press, 2002). Fruchter and the former landlady, Fagie Schaffer, further reveal that Gladys pushed her son to go to medical school and that Elvis had "nose surgery."
"Today we learned that Elvis’ mother wanted him to be a doctor, he loved matzah ball soup and he had a nose job," Beloff says in the voice-over narration. "If that doesn’t prove that he’s Jewish, nothing will. What more proof do we need?"
In honor of Elvis’ Jewish roots, the rabbi, Reuben Poupko of Montreal, leads the filmmakers in saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, at Elvis’ grave. In Israel, they plant a tree for the singer in the Hadassah Forest. But in reality, Elvis was an avowed Christian. During a candlelight vigil at Graceland, Hartal admits to another of the 10,000 faithful assembled for the annual Elvis Week in 2000, "He ate bacon more than 20 people in the crowd here put together."
Still, Presley’s Jewish connections are sure to spark interest among Jewish audiences, although few people involved with the project can say exactly why.
"There’s an overwhelming urge on behalf of Jews to claim pop figures and ‘out’ them," says Ken Sherman, Makor’s director of film and media. "I think it’s both comic and revealing in some sense, but I can’t psychologically name it." Perhaps, Sherman suggests, Jews are most comfortable as outsiders, but maintain a strong fascination with popular culture. "In many ways, Elvis is the ultimate pop culture insider," Sherman says.
At Makor, the loosely affiliated group of musicians known as Loser’s Lounge will memorialize Elvis with some of his classics, such as "Burning Love" and "Jailhouse Rock." The Losers’ leader, keyboard player Joe McGinty, also plans to roll out some lesser-known Elvis tunes, including "Yoga Is As Yoga Does" and "Change of Habit," from a 1969 movie co-starring Mary Tyler Moore as a nun.
Performances by the three-year-old "What I Like About Jew" tend toward tributes to unexpected bands, like Kiss and Blue Oyster Cult, which included several Jewish members, or a recent rock ‘n’ roll rendition of "Fiddler on the Roof." The Loser’s Lounge last played at Makor in the fall with an earnest homage to Jewish songwriters Carol King and Neil Diamond.
McGinty says he detects nothing specifically Jewish in Elvis’s signature sound. Rather, he says, it is "black music done by a young white kid" and backed up with excellent musicianship.
But "What I Like About Jew" co-founder Sean Altman, who will perform an a cappella version of "Return to Sender" with Loser’s Lounge, says the King’s musical popularity does have a Jewish foundation. Makor’s Elvis tribute is fitting, he claims, because the songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composed most of the King’s hits, including "Hound Dog."
"Literally," Altman says, "almost all of Elvis’ early material was written by two nice Jewish boys from New York."
Elvis Week runs July 1-9 at Makor, 35 W. 67th St., Manhattan. (212) 601-1000. "Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots," screening and discussion with director Max Wallace, Mon., July 1, 7:30 p.m., $15. Additional screenings:Mon., July 1, 9 p.m.; Tues.-Wed., July 2-3, 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.; Sat., July 6, 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m.; Sun., July 7, 2;30 p.m., 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.; Mon.-Tue., July 8-9, 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.; $9. Loser’s Lounge Musical Tribute, Mon. and Wed., July 1 and 3, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., $20. "Schmelvis" screening plus musical tribute package, $25.
Photographs of "The Man and His Reflection" are on view through Aug. 3 at an unrelated exhibition, "Where is Elvis?" at Howard Greenberg Gallery, 120 Wooster St., Manhattan. (212) 334-0010. Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
- Gladys Presley
- Max Wallace
- Ken Sherman
- Dan Hartal
- Tom Parker
- Jeannette Fruchter
- Ari Cohen
- Had Elvis
- Larry Geller
- Nancy Tackett
- Arts Guide
- Elvis Inn
- New South
- Carol King
- Elvis Presley
- Aaron Presley
- Elaine Dundy
- Evan Beloff
- director and writer
- Middle East
- Human Interest
- Staff Writer
- New York
- Julia Goldman
- the Wall Street Journal