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Was Elvis Presley Jewish?

May 9, 2009 | by Richard Rabkin

Orthodox Elvis impersonator Dan Hartal a.k.a. "Schmelvis" thinks so.

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.

If there is one regret that Geller has about his time with Elvis it's that he wasn't able to wrap teffilin with him.

In watching the movie and speaking to Hartal, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that there is something almost spiritual in the love that diehard Elvis fans have for their "king." "Elvis had a special neshama (soul)," says Hartal. "You don't see followers of John Lennon or Jim Morrison behaving the same way that Elvis fans do. There was something special beyond the man. His spirit, his music, his connection."

According to Larry Geller, Elvis' hair stylist and at times spiritual guru, Elvis was quite spiritual in his own way. When he worked for Elvis, Geller was involved with Eastern religions and would often give Elvis books of a spiritual nature. Geller subsequently became an Orthodox Jew. According to Hartal, Gelller, whom he calls Chaim Lev, said that if there is one regret that he has about his time with Elvis it is that he wasn't able to wrap teffilin with him.

As documented in the movie, in the end, the group was successful in giving Elvis the Jewish tribute that they felt was long overdue. Initially they had only 7 of the 10 Jewish males required for a minyan (quorum) to recite the mourner's kaddish. But fortunately, or miraculously as Hartal asserts, three more Jews came "out of nowhere" and Rabbi Reuven Poupko led the group in prayer.

Since the release of the film, Schmelvis has become a much sought after performer. He also has a new release coming out called "From Memphis to the Holy Land" timed to coincide with Elvis's 30th "yahrtzeit."

When asked what he thinks Elvis' reaction would be to Schmelvis' music, the movie, and the fact that they got a minyan at Graceland to recite the mourner's kaddish on Elvis' yahrtzeit, Hartal pauses to reflect and answers, "He would probably say ‘Uh...thank you, thank you very much."


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