The Kosher King
In search of Elvis Presley's Jewish roots
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."
It's not the audiences that sustain him as an artist, says Hartal: "The people I perform for are very old and low functioning. Sometimes the biggest reaction I get is if someone opens their eyes, or maybe smiles. But I love what I do, and I'm a natural performer. And when I do Elvis, I really capture his electricity."
That nothing went as planned is precisely what makes the film work. At Presley's birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., Rabbi Poupko approaches a motorcycle cop and asks if he knew that Elvis was a Jew. "You learn something new everyday," replied the cop, who all but yawns. A Memphis woman tells Goldstein she doesn't see why Elvis's Jewishness matters, so Goldstein ups the ante. He tells her with a straight face that a group of New York Jews plan to dig up Elvis and bury him in a cemetery for Jewish celebrities. "Are you Jewish?" she asks suddenly. "No!" Goldstein snaps back defensively.