The Kosher King
In search of Elvis Presley's Jewish roots
Without his white suit and guitar, nothing about Dan Hartal suggests that he's an Elvis impersonator, even a Jewish Elvis impersonator known as Schmelvis. Hartal, a Hasidic Jew from Montreal, is a stocky and mild-mannered 38-year-old, with a kind face and a dark beard. Admittedly, appearance has never stopped anyone from trying to incarnate the rock legend from Memphis, and it's not what throws you off the track with Hartal: it's his sincerity. Hartal seems too earnest to be an Elvis impersonator. When he tells me he usually travels with "my boys, the Jewish Mafia," his answer to the King's retinue, the Memphis Mafia, Hartal doesn't crack a smile.
"Oh, he's a very sincere guy," said Max Wallace, whose documentary about the real Elvis Presley's Jewish identity stars Hartal. "He's a good guy," adds Wallace. "I just think this whole Schmelvis thing has gone to his head."
Hartal's seriousness comes in part from the fact that he doesn't consider himself pure entertainment. "I perform at Jewish old folks' homes," he says, stroking his beard. Hartal and I are sitting in a coffeehouse on Boulevard St. Laurent in Montreal the day before the film's Canadian premiere. "I try to bring a little light into a dark place, and for me that's a religious act. Music is a miraculous vehicle that awakens people spiritually. Would you like to hear a sample?"
By all means, I say. Hartal picks up my tape recorder, cradles it in both hands, and in a raw, velvety croon belts out, "We-e-e-ell, since my bubbe left me, I've found a new place to dwell."
The film, due out in the States later this year, hasn't lessened Hartal's sense that he's different from other Elvis acts. "Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots" tracks Hartal's pilgrimages to Graceland and the Holy Land--at least that's the gag. In truth the idea for the movie began when Wallace, who wrote and directed "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" read a 1998 Wall St. Journal article reporting that Elvis's maternal great-great-grandmother was a Jew. Because Jewish identity is passed through the mother's line, this meant that, at least according to Jewish law, the King was kosher.
Wallace, and producers Evan Beloff and Ari Cohen, decided to drive from Montreal to Memphis in a Winnebago in search of proof of Elvis's Jewishness. They enlisted humorist Jonathan Goldstein (now a producer at NPR's "This American Life"), to act as their "creative idea guy." To add theological weight, they brought on board Rabbi Reuben Poupko, of Montreal's Beth Israel Beth Aaron Synagogue. The rabbi's job was to interpret the religious and historical significance of their findings along the way and to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over Elvis's grave at Graceland.