As an accidental past participant in Elvis Week, the festival held each August in Memphis leading up to the anniversary of Elvis’s death, I can tell you that very few Elvis fans consider The King to be a Jew.
This is fair. He sang a lot of gospel tunes and famously found solace in them. Writing about Elvis in Rolling Stone, Bono, the lead singer of U2, explained:
Jerry Schilling, the only one of the Memphis Mafia not to sell him out, told me a story about when he used to live at Graceland, down by the squash courts. He had a little room there, and he said that when Elvis was upset and feeling out of kilter, he would leave the big house and go down to his little gym, where there was a piano. With no one else around, his choice would always be gospel, losing and finding himself in the old spirituals. He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety. But he didn’t stay long enough. Self-loathing was waiting back up at the house, where Elvis was seen shooting at his TV screens, the Bible open beside him at St. Paul’s great ode to love, Corinthians 13. Elvis clearly didn’t believe God’s grace was amazing enough.
As unfathomable as it might seem, a little known fact is that Elvis Presley, by matrilineal descent, was halakhically Jewish. A look at the nomination of Elvis for the Jewish-American Hall of Fame yields the following information:
Historian and biographer Elaine Dundy writes about Elvis Aron Presley’s Jewish heritage in her book “Elvis and Gladys”:
“…Nancy Burdine was married to Abner Tackett (Elvis’ great great maternal grandmother). Nancy was of particular interest to Gladys for her Jewish heritage, often remembering Nancy’s sons for their Jewish names Sidney and Jerome. Nancy and Abner had a daughter Martha who married White Mansell. The daughter which they named Octavia, nick-named Doll, who was Elvis’ maternal grandmother.”
“…Doll and Robert had nine children. Gladys Love was the fifth daughter born followed by 3 more brothers and one sister. After his mother died, Elvis personally sought to design his beloved mother’s gravesite which included a Star of David on Gladys Love Presley’s tombstone. The decision was made by him in honor of his Jewish heritage. Something his mother was proud of and acknowledged to Elvis at a very early age.
So Elvis’s great great maternal grandmother was Jewish and had a daughter who had a daughter who had a daughter that was Elvis’s mother. If you’re not convinced, here is a link to a recording (supposedly) of Elvis singing “Hava Nagila.” If it’s real, another piece of evidence in support of his Jewishness might be that Elvis (like some Jews) doesn’t seem to know all the words to the song.
Nomination [Jewish-American Hall of Fame]
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.