August 15, JERUSALEM (AP) - On the main highway into this holy, hilltop city, a curious sign directs motorists to what's become a modern place of pilgrimage. It reads simply, ``Elvis.''

In a land crisscrossed by biblical prophets and Jesus, emperors and potentates, the roadside Elvis Inn - a gas station, restaurant and tourist trap - is a shrine to the king of rock 'n' roll.

Friday marks the 25th anniversary of Elvis' death and hundreds were expected to come to the spot to remember the singer. Some Israeli fans are also pondering a little-known theory about Elvis' identity that is increasingly talked about here - the king may have had Jewish blood.

Elvis' maternal great-great-grandmother, Nancy Tackett, was Jewish, according to one author. Tackett's daughter Martha Tackett was the mother of Doll Mansell, who in turn was the mother of Elvis' mother, Gladys Smith, according to a book, ``Elvis and Gladys,'' by Elaine Dundy.

Religious law says Judaism is passed down from the mother, so Elvis could be considered Jewish even though he was raised Christian, Dundy says.

The book received little attention when it was published in 1985. But an article mentioning it in the Wall Street Journal four years ago sent some enthusiasts on a search for Elvis' Jewish roots.

``He kind of looks Jewish. He's beautiful,'' said Kellen Kaiser, 21, from Berkeley, Calif., as she walked into the Elvis Inn. The dance student, who is spending the summer here, was awed by the weirdness of the place. Her jaw dropped.

A 13-foot golden Elvis statue looms out frot. Inside are souvenirs and a chaotic hodge-podge of more than a thousand photos of Elvis on the walls and ceiling. The restaurant, which opened two years before the king's 1977 death, is the creation of Elvis fanatic Uri Yoeli, an Israeli who was flying home from a trip to London to be on hand for Friday's celebrations.

``The kitsch level in this place is a little overwhelming, but in a good way,'' Kaiser said, as ``Are You Lonesome Tonight?'' played on the restaurant stereo. Kaiser has been a fan since she was a child. Her mother once forced a female friend to dress as Elvis for her 10th birthday party.

Motti Merromy, 51, who stops at the Elvis Inn on his way to work, was surprised to learn that the king could be Jewish.


I don't think so. I thought he was a good Christian,'' he said, sitting next to a bronze Elvis wearing a Jewish pendant with the word ``chai,'' Hebrew for ``alive.'' One photo in the restaurant shows Elvis at a 1972 performance in Salt Lake City - and he's wearing the chai talisman, with Hebrew letters.

A documentary film released this year has also taken up the issue.

``Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots'' follows ultra-orthodox Jewish Elvis impersonator Dan Hartal, from Montreal, as he travels trying to convince those he meets that Elvis was Jewish.

The 75-minute film begins with Hartal, who goes by Schmelvis, in a white polyester jumpsuit decorated ith Jewish Stars of David, as he launches into a performance at an old age home for a sleepy crowd. At Graceland he says Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over Elvis' grave.

Hartal, 38, began performing spoofs of Elvis songs almost a decade ago. His repertoire includes ``Love me Blender'' and ``You Ain't Nothin' but a Matzo Ball.''

``I had a spiritual connection to the king ever since I heard 'Girls Girls Girls' and 'Hound Dog,''' Hartal said in a phone interview from Montreal, where he's preparing for a 30-city tour of America. ``Doing this film answereda lot of questions.''

Hartal's journey in the summer of 2000 ends in Israel, where he plants a pine tree for Elvis, as is traditionally done for Jews who die outside of Israel in the Diaspora. He floats in the Dead Sea with a group of Hassidic Jews he meets there and he sports his full costume to ride a camel through the desert.

And of course, he stops at the Elvis Inn outside of Jerusalem, where he has a chance encounter with a busload of Arab school children. Their teacher begs Schmelvis to sing and he does, banging on drums with the excited children.

``The teacher whispered in my ear, 'Elvis brings peace to the children,''' said Evan Beloff, one of the film's producers. ``It was beautiful - weird, but beautiful.''

Yacov Tovi, a 51-year-old Israeli, who has been performing as Elvis since he was 16 had a similar experience.

In the early 1980s, during the height of war in Lebanon, Tovi sang to Israeli soldiers in Beirut and heard people clapping from behind an earth barrier. He asked the commander to invite them over, thinking they were Israeli troops. The commander laughed and told him those were enemy Syrian soldiers.

``Elvis is universal,'' Tovi said.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad