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Elvis, the Disappearing Jew    

Elvis, the Disappearing Jew

Though suspicious minds may find this hard to believe, Elvis Presley was both halachically Jewish and an early example of the disappearing American Jew…


It was 60 years ago this summer that a virtually unknown singer named Elvis Presley stood before a microphone at Sun Studios in Memphis and belted out “Mystery Train,” ingeniously blending country music, R&B and raw testosterone-charged angst that helped create rock-and-roll and revolutionize popular music.


But as Elvis stood at the cusp of becoming a cultural icon, it wasn’t just as a singer that made him ahead of his time.


It was also as a disappearing Jew.



Elvis, surprisingly, played an early role in the greatest tragedy now engulfing the Jewish people. With rampant assimilation and a rising intermarriage rate that has reached 71.5 percent among non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S., generations of Jews are completely fading away. Millennia-old paternal Jewish lines are being thoroughly cut off, and there are now countless “disappearing” Jews — maternal descendants of Jews who live non-Jewish lives with non-Jewish last names but are still Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law).


Though suspicious minds may find this hard to believe, Elvis Presley was both halachically Jewish and an early example of the disappearing American Jew.


Biographer Elaine Dundy, in her book Elvis and Gladys, discovered that Elvis’s maternal great-great grandmother, Nancy Burdine, was Jewish:


 “…Nancy Burdine was married to Abner Tackett. Nancy was of particular interest to Gladys (Elvis’s mother) for her Jewish heritage, often remembering Nancy’s sons for their Jewish names Sidney and Jerome. Nancy and Abner had a daughter Martha who married White Mansell. The daughter which they named Octavia, nick-named Doll, was Elvis’ maternal grandmother.


So Elvis’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish, making Elvis Jewish according to Jewish law.


If this sounds all shook up, that’s all right (Mama). There were many Elvis Presleys. There was Elvis the rock-and-roll rebel, Elvis the gospel singer, movie star Elvis, Las Vegas Elvis, giving-away-Cadillacs-to-friends Elvis, later-era Elvis with the studded jumpsuits and now Elvis the unlikely poster child of the disappearing American Jew.


As a halachic descendent four generations away from his Jewish root, Elvis’s life foreshadows just how far and deep assimilation can go, Elvis was raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical church and eventually became what many consider the greatest white gospel singer of the 20th century. And ironically, when Elvis Presley was a teen living in an apartment below a young Orthodox rabbi and his wife, he would sometimes turn the lights on for them on Shabbat.


Elvis as a disappearing-Jew prototype, on the other hand, also sheds some hope to a generation where disappearing Jews are fast becoming a greater part of American Jewry. A closer look at Elvis’s life reveals the pintele Yid, the spark of the Jewish soul, that’s always present no matter how distant it may seem. How? Elvis knew about his Jewish ancestry and was proud of it.


According to biographer Elaine Dundy, Elvis’s mother Gladys imparted this pride to Elvis “at a very early age.” Perhaps this was why Gladys waited to give him his first haircut when he was three years old, which is the age Jewish boys traditionally get their upsherin (first haircut ceremony). And when Elvis was a teen, according to Jewish Celebrity Anecdotes, he would listen to the cantorial records of Shlomo Koussevitsky and Moishe Oysher playing through his Orthodox rabbi-neighbor’s window while he was on the street below washing his 1942 Lincoln Zephyr coupe.


Elvis’s parents, though, advised him not to broadcast the fact he descended from Jews because “people don’t like Jews.” He eventually ignored that advice.


Elvis started paying tribute to his Jewish heritage, according to the Elvis Presley News website, after his mother died in 1958 when he designed a Star of David on her tombstone.


Even more publically, Elvis wore a "Chai" necklace both on and offstage throughout 1977 (the last year of his life). It was said that Elvis’s personal hairstylist and spiritual mentor, Larry Geller, introduced Elvis to the Hebrew alphabet as well as Kabbalah. Once, a member of his “Memphis Mafia” entourage asked Elvis why “Chai,” the Hebrew word for “life,” was so meaningful to him. Elvis responded, “I don’t want to miss out on going to Heaven on a technicality."


Elvis also gave charity to local Jewish organizations. He even donated a room to the Memphis Jewish Community Center. But most legendary was this story: The Memphis Jewish Welfare had hoped to receive $1,000 from Elvis along with other charities he donated to every Christmas, so they sent a delegation to Graceland. Elvis agreed to see them, and they told him how they help the Jewish poor and needy, including orphans. Elvis asked to be excused for a moment, then came back with a check. When they took it, they were astonished; it was for $150,000. They asked him if he made a mistake. Elvis answered, “I know what I’m doing.”


Elvis Aaron Presley died on August 16, 1977 at the age of 42 (which makes his yahrzeit the 2nd of Elul). Had he lived longer, had he been introduced to emuna and Torah and Shabbat, would he have made teshuva? Would he have traded his trademark sideburns for sidelocks? “Jailhouse Rock” for “VeAfilu BeHastara”?


It’s too late to say.


But for the countless disappearing Jews today who are halachic Jews like Elvis was before them, it’s not too late. No matter how far down the maternal line, there’s always hope that a halachic Jew can come back to the Jewish people, to Torah and to Hashem.

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  2 Talkbacks for this article    See all talkbacks  
  Elvis's Jewish Ancestry
Michael Green5/28/2019 2:57:55 AM
  Elvis had wonderful middos.
Michael Greene4/14/2017 6:55:20 AM

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