On Elvis’ Yahrzeit, His Not So Secret Jewish History
Tablet magazine has a charming podcast (originally broadcast on Santa Monica public radio station KCRW-FM, they note) of Memphis native Harold Fruchter, son of the late Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, reminiscing about his family’s relationship with Elvis Presley. Elvis lived downstairs from the Fruchters as a teenager, befriended them and occasionally served as their Shabbos goy. Elvis’s and Harold’s mothers were friendly and Mrs. Fruchter sometimes helped the impoverished Presleys with the grocery bills. Fruchter says he once heard that Elvis had made a donation to a Jewish organization to honor the Fruchters, and he found that most gratifying.
It’s a lovely piece, and quite appropriate to the time of year. Elvis died on August 16, 1977, which means his yahrzeit would be the 2nd of Elul. That fell this year on Thursday, August 28. But why would the Hebrew date of Elvis Presley’s death be of any significance? Ah — therein lies a tale. The fact is that Elvis Presley was himself Jewish, at least halachically. And as you’re about to find out, he was quite proud of that fact.
This isn’t the first time that various Fruchters have told the story of their family’s relationship with Elvis. It’s an incomplete narrative, because it appears they weren’t aware that Elvis was himself Jewish. If they’d known, it seems highly unlikely the rabbi would have let him serve as Shabbos goy. It would have amounted to suborning chilul Shabbos.
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.
When I got back to my hotel I called Memphis blues historian Robert Gordon, whom I knew vaguely, to find out what the heck this was all about. He said there were stories about Elvis having had some Jewish ancestry, but I would do well to call disc jockey George Klein, the elder statesman of Memphis rock ’n’ roll. It seems Klein had been lifelong friends with Elvis, starting in junior high. He was a member of the Memphis Mafia, the gang of childhood buddies who surrounded Elvis, traveled and partied with him and handled his affairs on the road.
I got Klein on the phone right away. He couldn’t have been nicer. He explained to me that Elvis’s great-great-grandmother had been Jewish and Elvis was very proud of it. Oh, I said, you mean his father’s father’s …
“No,” Klein said. “His mother’s mother’s mother’s mother.”
“So Elvis was —“
He cut me off. “You said it, bubba, not me.”
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.
According to Sid Shaw, the controversial British Elvisologist who runs the Elvisly Yours fansite, it was Elvis’s father Vernon who saw to it that there wouldn’t be a star on the new, elaborately Christian stone. One of Elvis’s closest lifelong friends, Marty Lacker, claimed in an interview years later that Vernon was “anti-Semitic.”
Memphis Mafia: (from left) Col. Tom Parker, Marie Parker, Elvis, Larry Geller, George Klein, Alan Fortas. / Elvis Presley News
Klein told me that he wasn’t the only Jewish member of the Memphis Mafia. One of the central fixtures in Elvis’s life for years was Alan Fortas, a nephew of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, who’d known Elvis since high school. Alan, who died in 1992, had been an active member of Baron Hirsch Synagogue, the main Orthodox congregation in Memphis. The room Elvis donated to the JCC was in honor of Alan’s parents Meyer and Pauline Fortas (and not Elvis’s own parents, as Barrie Weiser had thought).
Another Jewish member of the Memphis Mafia was Marty Lacker, sometimes described as his personal sounding board and, along with Elvis’s cousin Billy Smith, the closest Elvis had to “true friends.” Yet another member was Larry Geller, Elvis’s hairdresser and spiritual guru in the study of Zen Buddhism and Kabbalah.
Apparently Elvis’s manager and image-maker, Colonel Tom Parker, didn’t think much of Elvis surrounding himself with Jews, particularly with Larry Geller’s Kabbalah teachings. Unlike Vernon, Colonel Tom had nothing against Jews, I’ve been told. It was just that the colonel didn’t think it would help Elvis’s image as an American idol in the heartland if it were known that he identified himself in some fashion as Jewish.
Nowadays it’s pretty much public knowledge, for those who choose to look. Here’s the story of the “Jewish Elvis” as told by the popular Elvis fansite Elvis Presley News. It has a great story about a check he wrote to the Memphis Hebrew Academy. They went to him and asked for $1,000. He gave them $150,000. (Graceland has a display of some of his canceled checks to charities, including one, if memory serves, to the Jewish federation.)
And here’s the story of Elvis Shmelvis, a.k.a. Dan Hartal, “the world’s only Orthodox Elvis impersonator” and a longtime devotee of the Jewish Elvis.
This page from Elvis Presley News describes in some detail Elvis’s deep devotion to his mother Gladys, along with the precise details of her Jewish lineage (her great-grandmother Nancy Burdine was apparently the last practicing Jew in the line). Reading it tells you a lot about the depth of his attachment to his Jewish heritage. It also helps, I think, to explain his descent into drugs and self-destruction. Her early death shattered him. She died at 42. So did he. She died August 14. He died August 16. And, if I may, she died on 28 Av and he on 2 Elul, four days apart.
And finally, one traveler’s tribute to the Elvis Inn, a roadside shrine to the King located in Neveh Ilan, just outside Jerusalem. It’s the home of what’s reputed to be the world’s biggest Elvis statue, and I gotta say, visiting there the first time (at Bradley Burston’s urging) made me fall in love with Israel all over again in a whole new way.