While it is hardly a secret that the so-called “King of Rock-and-Roll” had a very close relationship with an Orthodox Jewish family as a teenager, and that Jews penned the majority of his songs, it is less well known that he was himself of Jewish ancestry. He was, in fact, Jewish by halakhic standards. In a new book, Roselle Kline Chartock provides documentation for this claim, which Seth Rogovoy sums up in his review:
While he was still a boy, Presley’s mother, Gladys, told young Elvis about his Jewish great-great-grandmother. Nancy Burdine, an immigrant from Lithuania, settled in Memphis in the 19th century and raised a family, including sons named Sidney and Jerome and a daughter named Martha. Martha had a daughter, Octavia, who gave birth to Gladys.
At the same time that Gladys told Elvis of his Jewish lineage, she also warned him to keep it to himself, because “some people don’t like Jews.” Among those to whom Gladys was referring was her husband (Elvis’s father, Vernon), as well as members of the extended Presley clan, all of whom were Jew-haters. When Gladys died in 1958, at the young age of forty-six, when Elvis was only twenty-three, Vernon Presley oversaw the design of her gravestone, including the image of a cross on an upper corner. A few years later, Elvis had a Star of David added to the opposite corner of her grave marker to balance out the cross and to acknowledge his mother’s Jewish heritage.
Chartock also documents a host of Presley’s other Jewish connections, ranging from the Jewish tailor who designed his flamboyant stage outfits to the member of his entourage whom he called his “Jewish mother.” But, as Rogovoy notes, Chartock also digs deeper:
The Presleys were churchgoers, and Elvis’s sincere belief in Christian teachings seems also to have predisposed him to be fond of Jews. Chartock quotes Larry Geller—one of the Jewish members of [Elvis’s Memphis entourage and his “spiritual advisor”]— paraphrasing Presley thusly:
“Man, it used to confuse the hell outta me as a kid. In church all they talked about was how great all the Jews were, Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, and all those other prophets. They were all Jewish. But outside of church, they would talk about ‘those damn Jews.’ They would put them down. I just couldn’t understand it.”