January 8, 1935, is the birthdate of Elvis Presley, making today the 80th anniversary of the birth of one of the Western world’s most adored entertainers, a man whose early career changed the direction of popular music in the U.S., before veering off into campiness and unwitting self-parody.
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If you’re wondering why Elvis, important as he may have been, merits the attention of a Jewish-history column, the answer is that there’s good reason to believe that the King was Jewish himself. Not an observant or even identifying Jew, true, but a halakhic one, a Jew according to religious law.
Enter the great-great-grandmother
Though the circumstantial evidence pointing to Elvis’s connection to Jews and their culture is significant, the “halakhically Jewish” case rests on only one bit of information.
In “Gladys and Elvis,” a 1985 biography of Presley, Elaine Dundy cited a Presley cousin, Oscar Tackett, who told her that Elvis’s maternal great-great-grandmother, Nancy Burdine Tackett – also an ancestor of Oscar’s -- was Jewish.
That would mean that Nancy’s daughter, Martha Tackett Mansell, and her daughter, Octavia Mansell Smith, and her daughter, Gladys Love Smith Presley, were all Jewish, according to traditional Jewish law.
Which would have made Gladys’s one surviving child, Elvis Aron Presley, Jewish as well. (Elvis’s twin brother emerged stillborn 30 minutes before him.)
Presley also had Scots-Irish, French-Norman and Cherokee Indian heritage, “and when you overlay all this with his circumstances, social conditioning and religious upbringing -- specifically his Southern poor white, First Assembly of God upbringing,” Dundy wrote, “you have the enigma that was Elvis.”
A Chai and a cross
On the Web, one can find countless anecdotes testifying to Elvis’s Jewish connections. There is the original stone that marked the grave of Gladys Presley, who died in August 1958. Designed by her loving son, that marker, at Forest Park Cemetery in Memphis, gave equal weight to both a cross and a Star of David. In 1977, when she was reinterred at Graceland together with Elvis, who was no longer alive to supervise the inscription on the marker, the Jewish symbol was not included.
Elvis himself often wore a Chai necklace – a pendant with the Hebrew letters het and yod, which spell out the Hebrew word for “life.” In fact he is said to have been wearing both a Chai symbol and a cross on the night that he died, August 16, 1977.
On the occasion of Presley’s yahrzeit last year, Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg gathered together these and many other of the performer’s Jewish links.
He also referred readers to a podcast interview, broadcast by Los Angeles radio station KCRW last year, and picked up by Tablet Magazine. The interview was with Harold Fruchter, a Memphis musician, whose parents were neighbors of Vernon, Gladys and Elvis Presley on Alabama Avenue for two years in the mid-1950s, when Harold was a baby and Elvis an adolescent.
Harold’s late father, Albert Fruchter, was a rabbi. Because the family was Sabbath-observant, Elvis sometimes served as their Shabbes goy, turning the lights or stove on and off for them on Shabbat, when such appliances are off-limits to Jews. (Needless to say, Rabbi Fruchter was not aware of his young neighbor’s Jewish pedigree.)
Harold says that his mother, Jeannette, was very fond of their neighbor. She told him that in 1953, when Elvis made his first recording, he came upstairs to ask to borrow the Fruchters’ record player. “Oh Elvis, you can have it for the entire summer,” Jeanette Fruchter responded.
According to the website Elvis Presley News, the King donated $150,000 to the Memphis Hebrew Academy.
And Goldberg reports that Presley dedicated a room at the Memphis Jewish Community Center in honor of Meyer and Pauline Fortas, parents of his good friend Alan Fortas (a nephew of onetime U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas).
Alan Fortas was part of the so-called Memphis Mafia, a group of friends, several of them Jews, who congregated around Presley during his youth and also in his troubled final years.
Another “Mafia” member, Larry Geller, had the dubious distinction of being Presley’s hair stylist and also instructed him in kabbalah.