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Arts & Culture Mr. Presley Goes to the Jcc: Film Explores King’s Jewish Roots

April 26, 2002
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When the movie “Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots” was the premiere event at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival last weekend, no one knew quite what to expect.

The film had been shot two years ago, produced by young filmmakers from Montreal, and that’s when the buzz began.

For fans of Elvis Presley, this was a revelation of almost biblical proportions. Was the king a cantor?

Not quite.

The 76-minute satirical documentary follows Elvis impersonator Dan Hartal who uses the stage name Schmelvis — around Memphis and Israel, from truck stops to gas stations, restaurants and the man-in-the-street, spreading the true gospel, that Elvis Aaron Presley was a Jew.

Well, his great-great-maternal grandmother, Nancy Burdine, was Jewish at least. And therein lies one of the more interesting tales about the king, a story that makes for compelling and hilarious viewing.

“I like Elvis. Who doesn’t?” asked Rabbi Reuben Poupko, the spiritual leader of Montreal’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron.

His appreciation for Elvis’ music led him to accept a small role in the film, where he is seen informing individuals about Elvis’ Jewish roots.

“I ended up becoming a character, offering some spiritual perspective and humor. It was great fun to do, as we spent a week apiece in Memphis and Israel, spreading the word,” Poupko said.

“I also thought it might be an interesting examination of the issue of assimilation in America,” added the Pittsburgh native. “This is a film about Jewish identity as much as it is about the king of rock ‘n’ roll.”

For genealogical buffs, Nancy Burdine gave birth to Martha Tackett, who begat Doll Mansell, whose daughter Gladys Smith birthed Elvis.

Elvis’ Jewish roots piqued the interest of the founders of the Diversus studio, Ari Cohen, Evan Beloff and Max Wallace, who started the company in 1998 as a means of “developing cultural projects with a conscience.”

The company got its start with the assistance of a Montreal federation-funded program, which provides interest-free loans to Jews under the age of 40 who are launching business ventures.

“Although Elvis was a practicing Christian, he was very aware of his Jewish roots,” said writer-director Wallace, a journalist who has written a book on boxer Muhammad Ali.

“His manager, Col. Tom Parker, told him never to talk about it, because he thought it would hurt his career. But he found subtle ways of expressing his Jewishness.”

Elvis never forgot that, when he was a boy, the Jewish community paid for him to attend summer camp, Wallace added.

He “donated a lot of money to the Memphis Jewish community. In fact, he used to play racquetball at the community center after midnight, when it was specially opened for him only. When his mother died in 1959, he made sure to put a Star of David on her headstone. For the last two years of his life, he wore a chai around his neck,” Wallace said.

For Shlomo Schwartzberg, the programming director of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, getting this movie for opening night was a real coup.

Some 850 seats were filled for the screening, Schwartzberg said.

“This is a satire on Jewish identity and a really original movie about pop culture,” he added. “It is the story of Elvis’ relationship with Jews, based to some degree on fact.”

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