file The Jewish side of Elvis

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18 Juli 2002 16:56 #1592 von Obi-Wan
The Jewish side of Elvis wurde erstellt von Obi-Wan
The Jewish side of Elvis
By Reid Epstein

(March 27) - Nearly 25 years after Elvis Presley's death, two Canadian filmmakers are tackling what they believe to be two vital questions: Was Elvis Jewish and, if so, does anyone care?

To answer those questions, the Montreal-based Diversus Productions crew traveled through the American South on a journey to Memphis, and then to Israel, in summer 2000. Accompanying them was Schmelvis, a proselytizing hassidic Elvis impersonator, and Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal, who served as the film's spiritual adviser.

The result of their quest is a 76-minute documentary, Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots, scheduled to premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in April and open to American audiences at New York's Knitting Factory in May.

The film's star is Dan Hartal, a hassid from Montreal. When he dons his rhinestone-studded white jumpsuit adorned with an oversized Star of David belt buckle and a red cape also covered with stars, he becomes Schmelvis. Although Hartal claims to have "a deep spiritual connection" with Presley, Schmelvis can often be fuzzy on the details, such as the lyrics to "Blue Suede Shoes."

It doesn't matter that Schmelvis doesn't know Elvis's lyrics, because he usually makes up his own. Hartal's rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel," for instance, includes the lyrics, "I'm leaving town tomorrow / I'm leaving town for sure / Going to yeshiva / Won't be coming here no more / Well that's all right Yiddishe-mamma."

While the film's producers expected such desecration of the classic Elvis narrative to elicit a backlash in the South, they were surprised when most people they asked were ambivalent about the King's newfound heritage.

"Elvis had a good influence on them," said Max Wallace, the director. "They have a lot of tolerant values. Maybe it's his grandmother's Jewish roots that inspired that."

But some Elvis purists proved to be not so agreeable. In the film, Schmelvis tried to enter the Images of Elvis impersonator contest in Memphis. Doc Franklin, the contest's organizer whose claim to Elvis legitimacy is his stint as veterinarian to Presley's pet chimpanzee, Scatter, would not allow Schmelvis to present his hassidic version of the King.

"No religion and no politics," Franklin told Schmelvis. Schmelvis slumped away as the voice of the film's producer, Evan Beloff, intoned, "Elvis would have wanted Schmelvis to get up there. He had an affection for Jews, and he would have understood where Schmelvis was coming from."

But in a later scene in Israel, some hassidim reveled in Presley's Jewish roots, which can be traced to his maternal great-great-grandmother, Nancy Burdine Tackett, a Jew. Religious identity is matrilineal, according to Jewish law.

While in the Dead Sea with a cameraman and sound technician in tow, the filmmakers came across two shirtless hassidim floating. The locals were able to shed light on the relevance of Elvis's Jewishness.

"Do you think that is important or not important that Elvis may have been Jewish?" asked Jonathan Goldstein, the film's coproducer.

"It is," one replied. "Music changes a person upside down."

Beloff then asked if the king of rock and roll, the so-called messiah of pop culture, being Jewish would constitute another sign of the coming of the Messianic Age.

"It is," the other hassid said.

THE FILM'S spiritual adviser said the hassidim were fascinated that someone with Jewish roots could affect the world like Presley did. "The very religious found it a vindication of their mystical notion of the sparks of holiness being scattered with Elvis's music," Poupko said in an interview.

While Elvis may have scattered holiness with his music, Schmelvis's contribution includes a small step in resolving tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. In Abu Ghosh, just outside Jerusalem, where the crew stopped for lunch at the Elvis Inn, a restaurant and memorabilia store devoted to the King, Schmelvis played an impromptu concert for a group of Palestinian schoolchildren on a day trip from the Gaza Strip. The children and their chaperones danced merrily around Schmelvis as he sang and played his guitar at the foot of what is believed to be the world's largest Elvis statue.

As the children boarded their bus to go home, Schmelvis jumped aboard and said, "I just want to tell you that Schmelvis brings peace to you. And I want to thank you very much, you've been a wonderful audience."

In his desire to spread Presley's spirit, Hartal said he is attempting to parlay any success the film may have into advancing his career as Schmelvis.

"I'm not going to make fun of Elvis," said Hartal, who can be booked through his Web site, www3.sympatico.ca/dluxenberg000 , for parties, bar mitzvas, weddings, and funerals. "There's a lot of Jewish to Elvis."

Whatever the fate of Schmelvis, Presley's Jewishness may be larger than the crew behind the film.

In one of the movie's most touching moments, Beloff interviews Jeannette Fruchter, for whom a teenage Presley served as a Shabbos goy.

Fruchter, who with her late husband Alfred, an Orthodox rabbi, lived in an apartment above the Presleys on Memphis's Alabama Avenue, said Elvis always carried a yarmulke in his pocket and loved eating matza ball soup. Gladys Presley wanted her son to be a doctor, Fruchter said.

The Presleys' Alabama Avenue landlord, Fagie Shaffer, said young Elvis had cosmetic surgery before his career took off, prompting Wallace to declare his faith in Presley's Jewishness.

"Elvis' mother wanted him to be a doctor, he loved matza ball soup, and he had a nose job," he said. "If that doesn't prove that he's Jewish, nothing will."

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