Monday, August 24, 2015

The Jewish Side Of Elvis

Popular Singers

Elvis’ Mother: Goldberg writes about his interview with George Klein, the elder statesman of Memphis rock ’n’ roll: “He told me that Elvis had put a Star of David on his mother’s gravestone. You can see it in the photo above. You won’t see it on her grave at Graceland, though. She was originally buried at Memphis’ Forest Park Cemetery, but after Elvis died in 1977 there was an attempt to rob his grave, and so he and his mother were reinterred at Graceland. The new gravestone, lacking Elvis’s active attention, didn’t get a star.”
Photo Credit & Source: The Forward
For a long time, there has been a lot of discussion about Elvis Presley being Jewish, not outwardly or as an observant Jew, but of being Jewish by Jewish law, or halakhah. An article, by J.J. Goldberg, in The Forward makes a convincing argument that leaves little doubt that the king of  ’n’ roll was, indeed, a member of the Jewish People.

In “On Elvis’ Yahrzeit, His Not So Secret Jewish History (August 30, 2014), Goldberg writes:
I found out about Elvis’s Jewish background the first time (of many) that I visited Memphis, back in the mid-1990s. I was there to speak at the Memphis Jewish Community Center. Heading into town from the airport, the center director, the irreplaceable Barrie Weiser, described their recently completed building renovation. In his animated description he mentioned the fact that they’d had to demolish a room donated to the center decades earlier by Elvis Presley. The plaque, dedicating the room, so Barrie recalled, to Elvis’s mother, who had some sort of Jewish background, had been retired to a storeroom.
Barrie went on to tell me that Elvis was a life member of the JCC, largely because he found it convenient to come there after midnight and play racquetball. Elvis being a major donor, the caretaker didn’t mind opening the place after hours for him. (It didn’t hurt that he was the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, I thought to myself.)
The next day I went on my first pilgrimage to Graceland. I was in for a series of shocks. First, there was nothing convenient about it. It was way across Memphis from the JCC. Elvis played racquetball at the JCC because he wanted to be at the JCC. Something mysterious was behind this.
As I took the tour, the mystery deepened. After you visit the various rooms on the ground floor (the upstairs was off limits, I was told, as it was still occupied by Elvis’s two elderly aunts) you were sent to the basement to view an endless row of display cases with all of Elvis’s album covers, gold records, jumpsuits and more. The very last display case, before you left the building to roam the grounds, featured the things Elvis was wearing the night he died. Included were his religious paraphernalia, which he “always wore,” the docent told me: a cross and a Chai pendant (visible in the photo above).
 Curiouser and curiouser.
What is not at all surprising is why Elvis could not publicly say he was Jewish, or claim his Jewish ancestry, or intimate that he had an interest in the Jewish People. This was primarily due to pressure from his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who thought America was not then ready for a non-Christian pop idol. So, one of the world’s most popular singers had to find other ways to display his Jewish ancestry, including wearing a chai (“life”) and surrounding himself with long-time Jewish friends, dubbed the Memphis Mafia. This is one way to circumvent the tight clutches of an over-reaching manager and equally those of societal expectations.

Elvis excesses have been well documented, including his generosity. That his music touched the lives of millions (including me) is also beyond dispute. So should the claim that he was Jewish. He had fans around the world, a true international entertainer. This reminds me of a story; when I recently attended a barbecue hosted by a Chabad-Lubavitch family (a Hasidic branch of Judaism), I struck up a conversation with a chassid, who had recently arrived from Israel. He spoke some English, and for some reason I can’t recall, the conversation soon turned to popular music and to Elvis. The man, around my age and of my generation, said rather unequivocally that “Elvis was Jewish” and that his neshamah (“soul”) was Jewish. He gave many reasons to support his assertion, including evidence from his rabbi.

For many, this fact is immaterial to his music and to his status as a legendary entertainer. This is undeniably true, and I do not want to make too much of it—it his his music that is most important, and for which he ought to be most remembered. (Whether or not he was Jewish did not matter to me when I growing up.) Such music transcends culture, religion, and national boundaries. And this is a beautiful idea.

Yet, I think it is important to set the record straight, to give him in death what was denied to him in life—some connection to his Jewish ancestry. So the connections exists in some small way. For example,there is a diner in Israel dedicated to all things Elvis; and Dan Hartal, an Orthodox Jewish performer called Elvis Shmelvis.

Elvis’ yahrzeit (the day of his death) on the Jewish calendar is the 2nd of Elul; this year that fell on Monday August 17th. May his memory among the living stay strong.

For more, go to [TheForward]