The Kosher King

In search of Elvis Presley's Jewish roots

BY: John D. Spalding


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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.

The cast was almost complete. "Every film needs a star," Wallace said, "and since Elvis is gone, I figured Schmelvis would be perfect." Hartal, who'd never visited Memphis, leapt at the opportunity to see where his hero had lived, loved, and died.

Wallace also had a subversive reason for inviting Schmelvis. "Elvis Presley is the most Christian of all pop culture icons," he said, "and I wondered how his devout Southern fans, like the ones who gather for the candlelight vigil at Graceland during Elvis Week every year, would react to the news that their God-fearing, gospel-singing idol was actually a Jew. I figured they'd take one look at Schmelvis and freak out." The plan, Wallace says, was to film the cast and crew getting chased out of Memphis by "anti-Semitic, pitchfork-wielding rednecks."

Nothing of the sort happened. For one thing, Elvis fans ate Schmelvis up. "Everybody loved him," said Wallace. "The constant attention he received interfered with our filming. We kept having to pull him away from disappointed fans who wanted their pictures taken with him." Shaking his head, Wallace says, "Memphis is the place where irony goes to die."

Hartal isn't surprised by Elvis fans' response. Strictly, he is not an Elvis impersonator. "I'm actually an Elvis tribute artist," he says. "Which means that I'm on a slightly higher level than an impersonator, because I also compose. I take Elvis's songs and throw in Yiddish lyrics. Basically, my formula is shtick plus Elvis equals Schmelvis.

"I've always had a spiritual link to Elvis," Hartal says. "I first heard Hound Dog when I was seven or eight, and it just hit me in the head like a rock. I loved everything about Elvis--the look, the moves, and especially the voice, the way it speaks to you directly. I knew I wanted to be just like the King. I had tickets to see him in concert, for my bar mitzvah, the day after he died. I was devastated."

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