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Blog Archive/July 2007

July 31, 2007

Catching Up With Schmelvis

When Mary Beth Crain and I discussed her latest piece, "A Jewish Tale of Woe," in which she explains how difficult she's finding life in rural Michigan without a good Jewish deli around, I suggested she drive to Montreal for a corned-beef fix at Schwartz's. I visited Schwartz's deli five years ago, when I was in town to interview Schmelvis, the world's only Orthodox Jewish Elvis impersonator. I hadn't thought about Schmelvis in years, but as Mary Beth and I spoke, I realized my profile of the Kosher King, which originally appeared at Beliefnet, would make a nice companion piece to her Jewish deli essay.

First, I needed an update on Schmelvis, aka Dan Hartal. Was he still performing, or had he retired his white jumpsuit and found another hobby? I met him in 2002--a heady year for Schmelvis. He was the star of a new documentary about the real Elvis' Jewish identity, and at the film's Canadian premiere he was delivered to the theater in a limousine. Could Hartal's star rise much higher than that? Doubtful. I wasn't sure I could even find him.

Well, I'm delighted to report that Schmelvis has not left the building. He's alive and well in Montreal, performing more than ever. But the first thing he wanted me to know when I called him today was that he's lost 30 pounds. "I was tired of looking like the old, fat Vegas Elvis," he said. "I wanted to look like the young, slim Elvis, but I also didn't want to give up my favorite fatty Jewish foods, like brisket and smoked meats. So I started swimming and jogging every day."

It took him nine months to shed the pounds, but the hard work paid off. "Finally, Schmelvis had the pelvis," he said. "I could shake that thing on stage like the King doing 'Polk Salad Annie' in 1969, before he porked out."

Hartal lost so much weight he needed to buy two new jumpsuits and several shirts. "I went from an extra large to a medium large," he said proudly. "The best part is I have so much more energy."

He needs all the pep he can get. By day, he works in tech support for a medical computer company. At night and on weekends, he slips into his white suit and hits the stage. "There's more demand for Schmelvis now than there was even after the movie came out," he said. "Corporate gigs, fundraisers, weddings, bar mitzvahs--I do them all. And every Thursday night, from 7 to 10, the boys and I play at the Java U Cafe on Queen Mary Street in Montreal."

Hartal also runs a website,, and finds creative ways to keep his name in circulation. "Did you know I'm really into crop circles and extraterrestrials?" he asked me. I did not know that, but why was I not surprised? "Well, I took a picture of a crop circle and had someone put it in the shape of Schmelvis. Then I sent it to the press with a note saying I'd been abducted by aliens and the next morning my face appeared in a crop circle in a field nearby."

The Montreal Gazette bit: columnist Bill Brownstein gave a couple lines to Schmelvis' otherworldly appearance in wheat. (Incidentally, Brownstein is also the author of "Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story.")

August 16 marks Elvis' 30th "yahrtzeit"--or death anniversary--and to commemorate the occasion Schmelvis has released a new CD called "From Memphis to the Holy Land." Songs include "Yiddish Mama," "Love Me Blender" and "Circumcision Song," a  tune about, yes, that Jewish ritual involving the male foreskin. Oddly, the song is set, not to an Elvis tune, but to "The Ballad of John & Yoko": "You know it ain't easy/You know how hard it can be/The way things are going, they're gonna circumcise me." Oy vey.

Read The Kosher King.

Here's Schmelvis, after he lost 30 pounds:

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 26, 2007

Personal Jesus

Earlier this week I was back on The Busted Halo Show with Father Dave Dwyer, on Sirius satellite radio, this time to discuss my article Jane Austen Meets Jesus. Father Dave was interested in the piece because, silly as it may be, it touches on how much we perceive Jesus in our cultural terms rather than his. To the faithful, Jesus was a man of all ages (and thus of our age) rather than a man of a very specific and, to us, alien time and place--first-century Palestine. This isn't a profound observation by any stretch, but many Christians rarely question how a 2,000-year-old carpenter could slip so easily into their world.

So in my piece, in case you missed it, Jane Austen travels back to ancient Galilee to see if Jesus measures up to her wonderful Mr. Darcy: "Jesus may have been the savior of the world, but was he tall and noble, sweet-tempered and charming? And, true, Jesus may have known how to turn water into wine, but did he know, for instance, that when he met a lady in the street he was supposed to wait for her to bow before he tipped his hat to her?"

Anyway, Father Dave and I got talking about how the masters have portrayed Jesus for eons as a brown-haired, blue-eyed northern European. Father Dave noted, however, that just because Jesus wasn't Norwegian doesn't mean people should tear down their religious art. To which I said something like, "Oh, of course not. Just as long as they keep in mind that Jesus probably looked absolutely nothing like the guy hanging on their wall."

But now I'm thinking, there's more to it than that. A few years ago, Popular Mechanics published an image of what Jesus may have looked like. British and Israeli forensic anthropologists created the image using a skull from first century Israel and information about Jewish people at that time.  So, the Jesus they came up with has a broad face, a big schnozz, and dark olive skin, as well as short hair, based on the Apostle Paul's warning that "If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him." Their logic being that Paul wouldn't have spoken out against long hair if Jesus had a flowing mane like Jim Caviezel in "The Passion of the Christ."

Jesus, the experts figured, probably stood about 5' 1" and weighed around 110 pounds. Here he is:

Of course, we'll likely never know what Jesus looked like. But this picture is probably a lot closer to the truth than anything Michelangelo or El Greco envisioned.

Which raises the question: How many Christians could pray to this man? You might say, well, it doesn't really matter to most believers what Jesus looked like. I'm not so sure. Try putting this mug on stained glass windows and see how many you sell. Or better yet, stick a crown of thorns on his head and hoist him up on the cross at the back of your church. Would anyone object? If so, why? We debate whether there's anti-Semitism in the church. This might be a good test.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 25, 2007

S.F.'s Cab No. 666

The devil got a big hearing at San Francisco's City Hall yesterday as the taxi commission debated whether to retire cab medallion number 666 because of its association with the Prince of Darkness.

The issue was pressed by driver Michael Byrne who insisted the number had brought him nothing but bad luck and misfortune ever since he'd been assigned the Mark of the Beast last year. Prior to the hearing, Byrne had tried lifting his cab's curse by taking the car and his demonic medallion to a local church and having them blessed, but to no avail.

Reported in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle, yesterday's hearing sounds like the makings of a Monty Python skit. Highlights:

* The president of the cab drivers' union wore red devil horns on his head and testified: "How dare you take Lucifer's number away. This is a serious issue."

* A cabbie named Barry noted that 666 was the address of Saints Peter and Paul's Church on Filbert Street, "an outfit not thought to be in Satan's pocket," the Chronicle said.

* A driver named Grasshopper countered that it was a "bad idea to get into mysticism and voodoo."

* Vice President Patricia Breslin asked: "Where does it end? I lived at an address of 666 and I did not go over to the dark side."

Ultimately, the devil got to keep his medallion number.

Concluded the Chronicle's report:

"When it was all over, the keenest minds at City Hall observed that the commission had discussed the matter for exactly 24 minutes (2 plus 4 equals 6) on the 24th of the month (2 plus 4 equals 6) in a meeting that began at half past 6 o'clock."

PS: SoMA isn't so sure that Saints Peter and Paul in SF has never been one of Satan's outposts. If you missed it, read about Mary Beth Crain's experiences with a devil-priest there in Confessions of a Madonna/Whore.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 23, 2007

Slouching Toward Michigan

As I've mentioned in a few previous articles, after 30 years in Los Angeles, I recently moved to the little town of Hart, Mich., to be near family and take care of my aging mother. I soon discovered that being a Jew in Hart is a far different experience from being a Jew in L.A., or New York, or Flatbush. There's no synagogue, and no Jewish community, but far more important--there's no Jewish deli.

Yes, if you ask me, the deli--and by deli I do not mean those pathetic packaged sandwich sections in the supermarkets and 7-11's--is the real place of Jewish worship. A genuine Jewish deli is not simply a wondrous locale, it's a wondrous experience.

Continue reading Mary Beth Crain's A Jewish Tale of Woe.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 19, 2007

Top Ten Onion Religion Stories

The Onion has reported so many wonderful religion stories over the years that it doesn't seem right to single out 10 for special merit. For example, devoted Onion readers might notice I didn't expand my list to include Bush Unveils New Blind-Faith-Based Initiatives or Local Pastor Solves Problem by Quoting Scripture. But, hey, Top Ten lists, not Top Twelve lists, are a national obsession, and didn't I just squeeze these two gems into the intro? Here then, in no particular order, are my 10 faves...

Continue reading Top Ten Onion Religion Stories.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 18, 2007

Finding God at the Tour de France

Though it's done in the most subliminal way, the Tour's got religion. The race might be better called a steeple chase as the course passes by umpteen flying buttresses and glorious architectural odes to piety. On TV, the Tour seems like a three-week long panoramic ecclesiastical postcard, and a clear message from God that aesthetics definitely count. The helicopter cameras spend as much time zooming in on every ancient gothic cathedral and country church spire as they do following the pastel-colored Pelaton, the core clump of cyclists that snakes around hair-pin turns and from on high resembles a briskly moving bag of tropical flavored Skittles.

Read Stephanie Hunt's It's Not Just About the Bike.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 18, 2007

Jesus of Siberia

In a remote corner of Siberia, thousands of people have dropped everything to build an entire town deep in the forest--all for a former Soviet soldier and Siberian traffic cop who claims to have been Jesus in a past life.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 14, 2007

Don't Listen to Pope Benny

Them's fightin' words. Writes CNN contributor and Chicago radio host Roland S. Martin:

"For him to even suggest that only the Catholic Church can provide true salvation to believers in Christ shows that he is wholly ignorant of the Scriptures that I have known all my life.

"Sorry, let me take that back. I've really only known the Bible for the last 13 of my 38 years. That's because those first 25 years were spent as a die-hard Catholic."

Thanks to Puck Purnell for sending me the link.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 13, 2007

SoMA Honored

The Times of London lists SoMA among the "most influential religion blogs."

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 12, 2007

Jane Austen Goes to Galilee

Yesterday I was stalked by Jane Austen. Every corner I turned at my local bookstore, there she was--her name emblazoned across titles in the New Fiction and New Non-Fiction sections, even over in Cooking, Food & Wine, where I bumped into "The Jane Austen Cookbook." Displayed on the new book tables were "Becoming Jane: The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen," edited by Anne Newgarden, and "Austen Land," a novel by Shannon Hale. Fresh out in paperback are Alexandra Potter's "Me and Mr. Darcy" and Patrice Hannon's "Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine's Guide to Life and Love."

I asked the young woman at the information desk if the store's book buyer is obsessed with a certain Regency-era female novelist. "Nope," she said. "You'll find this at all bookstores. Everybody is crazy about Jane Austen these days." Other recent hot-selling titles, she said, include "Jane Austen's Guide to Dating," "Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners," and "Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death and the SATs."

"There's even a big movie about Jane Austen coming out soon starring Anne Hathaway!" she said, confessing that she couldn't wait to see it.

That's when inspirado struck and I saw my door to fame and fortune: I would write a Jane Austen book. To be sure, any volume with Austen's name in the title could put me in caviar and Cristal for life, but think bigger than that, I prodded myself. Then it hit me: "Jane Austen Meets Jesus." A title combining two of the biggest selling names in publishing, along with a movie deal, just might be my $200-million-dollar-winning Powerball ticket.

Continue reading Jane Austen Meets Jesus.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 9, 2007

The Latin Mass: A Modest Proposal

Pope Benedict revived the old Latin Mass on Saturday, delighting traditional, conservative Catholics and angering liberal Catholics, who fear the move threatens Second Vatican Council reforms, and Jews, who are concerned because the Mass includes a prayer calling for the conversion of Jews, fixing their "blindness" to Jesus as the Messiah.

Rabbi Michael Lerner said in a press release yesterday that the pope has taken "a powerful step toward the re-introduction of the process of demeaning Jews. You cannot respect another religion if you teach that those who are part of it must convert to your own religion."

Now, one could argue that the threat of a few anti-Semitic lines is minimal because Latin is a dead language that even most priests don't know. If the Church replaced the Mass' offending portions with lines from Mother Goose, would anyone in the pews notice? Probably not. But it's a bad idea to return to a liturgy that in past centuries has provided a basis for anti-Semitism.   

Here's a compromise: Let churches deliver the Tridentine Mass not in Latin, but in Klingon. Reciting the Mass in the language of a fictional warrior race from another galaxy would neutralize the liturgy's anti-Semitic history, while still allowing worshippers to soak up the mystery and power of a service they don't understand.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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