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Searching for Elvis' Jewish roots

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2002-04-10

Elvis Presley

Elvis had Jewish connections

Think of Jewish celebrities and Elvis Presley isn't someone who immediately springs to mind. However, the authors of a new book and accompanying documentary feature have discovered that the rock n'roll legend, while not actually Jewish, had strong links with the Jewish community in Memphis, where he grew up.

According to Max Wallace and Jonathan Goldstein, the authors of Schmelvis: In Search Of Elvis Presley's Jewish Roots, Elvis grew up in a Jewish area of Memphis and as a teenager, lived downstairs from a local Rabbi, Alfred Fruchter. The Rabbi's widow, Jeanette Fruchter, recalls; "He was about 15 years old then and we got along so beautifully. He was such a nice boy, such manners. He called my husband Sir Rabbi."

Elvis got on so well with the couple that he even became their 'Shabbos Goy', visiting them every Saturday morning to turn on lights and do other jobs they were prohibited from doing. "We never told him we called him a Shabbos Goy. Usually, you give a small tip to the gentile who does this for you, but Elvis would never accept any money, he said it was his pleasure.

Mrs.Fruchter also remembers how she and her husband had the Presley family round for Friday night dinner once a month, with the young Elvis being a particularly big fan of matzo ball soup and challah - and he further enhanced his Jewishness by always carrying a yarmulke in his pocket. And although the couple lost touch with Elvis after he found fame, the Jewish influences on his early life were all too evident - he donated money to Jewish causes during his career, on one occasion giving a cheque for $150,000 to the Memphis Hebrew Academy.

His love of Jewish music may also have influenced some of his bigger hits, claims his former neighbour. "My husband loved Jewish cantorial music and Elvis told us that he loved listening to it. Some people think it may have influenced his own style, that they've heard a Jewish twist to some of his tunes. I don't know. But I remember when he cut his first record for his mother's birthday. When he got home with it, they couldn't play it because they were too poor to afford a record player. So my husband lent him ours. He was so thankful. They would play that first song over and over again. That's what started his career, you know, that recording."

The film accompanying the book offers further insight into Elvis' Jewishness, as makers Wallace and Goldstein trace the King's roots all the way to Israel and then return to his former home, Graceland, for further insight. En route to Memphis they encounter a string of eccentric characters and Elvis fans, while enlisting the help of an offbeat Orthodox Rabbi and a Hasidic Elvis impersonator to help them in their quest, and revealing the recipe for his favourite kosher peanut butter and banana sandwiches (on challah bread, naturally).

The book is published this month, but the film is still seeking release in the UK.