You never forget the day you meet the King…
I can still recall that exact moment. I remember thinking that I was the first passenger to board the Hawaiian Airline commuter flight that afternoon.
But there was somebody else already sitting on the airplane towards the rear as I boarded. What’s more, there was another, heavy-set man standing and blocking most of the narrow aisle on the plane, so passing by to get to my seat a few rows behind him would mean cramming myself around the seated passenger, and a sad looking woman who was sitting in the window seat alongside him.
It all quickly made sense as I awkwardly approached the couple in their seats. Our eyes met as I bowed my head to the man in the aisle seat, and simply said, “Hello.” He nodded back, as did his wife Priscilla. If only I had known back then. On that day, instead of simply saying “Hello,” I would have said, “Shalom Elvis.”
January 7th would have been the 81st birthday of Elvis Aron Presley. Nicknamed “the King” perhaps for the rock and roll kingdom he ruled over, Elvis was Jewish according to strict Jewish law. Religiously speaking, the undisputed facts note that Elvis’s Jewish lineage went back to his Jewish maternal great-great-grandmother, Nancy Burden as well as her daughter Martha and Martha’s daughter Octavia Smith. They were all Jewish as was Octavia’s daughter—and Elvis’s mother—Gladys Love Smith Presley.
There’s no shortage of information connecting the Jewish side of Elvis. After his Mom died in August of 1958, her only surviving and loving son designed an original grave marker for Gladys Presley that was engraved with both a cross as well as a Star of David. August unfortunately was a troubling month for Elvis not only marking the passing of his mother butalso the month he took his own life. Reportedly he was found wearing a cross as well as a Chai necklace, the symbolic Jewish chain of life which he often wore during his performances.
As a child, Elvis and his parents lived in an apartment below a Rabbi who didn’t know of the family’s Jewish connection. Elvis befriended the Rabbi often visiting and dining with the family. It is said that Elvis developed a taste of chicken soup and matzah balls and often served the family by turning on the Rabbi’s apartment lights and stove for the Sabbath.
Elvis’s annual yahrzeit has been religiously celebrated in a number of traditional ways from Memphis Tennessee to Jerusalem Israel. The Wall Street Journal published a story almost 20 years ago reporting a gathering of “all shook up Holy Land fans.” Hundreds of Israelis came together at a spot southwest of Jerusalem to commemorate the King’s death. These enthusiasts gathered at an aptly named restaurant called The Elvis Inn Neve Ilan with flickering yahrzeit candles. The Trip Advisor web community even today reports on the still popularity of the Elvis Inn, with its wall-to-wall Elvis memorabilia, continuous Elvis music and a menu that includes the deliciously named “Elvis Burger.” Pilgrimages to mark Elvis’ yahrzeit have been made to Graceland, his Memphis home where a minyan for Elvis and the reciting of the kaddish memorial prayer have taken place.
In his own quiet way Elvis supported local Jewish causes. He donated $150,000 to the Memphis Hebrew Academy and dedicated the Fortas room at the Memphis Jewish Community Center. He had a number of very close Jewish friends, including Alan Fortas, nephew of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and even his own hair stylist Larry Geller, who also, according to Haaretz instructed Elvis in Kaballah.
Shalom Elvis. And thank you very much for being a lifetime memory for this fan and for the many millions who will always “love you tender” and miss you dearly.