The Kosher King
An Elvis impersonator searches for the King’s Jewish roots.
By John D. Spalding
Without his white suit and guitar, nothing about Dan Hartal suggests that he's an Elvis impersonator, even a Jewish Elvis impersonator known as Schmelvis. Hartal, a Hasidic Jew from Montreal, is a stocky and mild-mannered 38-year-old, with a kind face and a dark beard. Admittedly, appearance has never stopped anyone from trying to incarnate the rock legend from Memphis, and it's not what throws you off the track with Hartal: it's his sincerity. Hartal seems too earnest to be an Elvis impersonator. When he tells me he usually travels with "my boys, the Jewish Mafia," his answer to the King's retinue, the Memphis Mafia, Hartal doesn't crack a smile.
"Oh, he's a very sincere guy," said Max Wallace, whose documentary about the real Elvis Presley's Jewish identity stars Hartal. "He's a good guy," adds Wallace. "I just think this whole Schmelvis thing has gone to his head."
Hartal's seriousness comes in part from the fact that he doesn't consider himself pure entertainment. "I perform at Jewish old folks' homes," he says, stroking his beard. Hartal and I are sitting in a coffeehouse on Boulevard St. Laurent in Montreal the day before the film's Canadian premiere. "I try to bring a little light into a dark place, and for me that's a religious act. Music is a miraculous vehicle that awakens people spiritually. Would you like to hear a sample?"
By all means, I say. Hartal picks up my tape recorder, cradles it in both hands, and in a raw, velvety croon belts out, "We-e-e-ell, since my bubbe left me, I've found a new place to dwell."
The film, due out in the States later this year, hasn't lessened Hartal's sense that he's different from other Elvis acts. "Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots" tracks Hartal's pilgrimages to Graceland and the Holy Land--at least that's the gag. In truth the idea for the movie began when Wallace, who wrote and directed "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" read a 1998 Wall St. Journal article reporting that Elvis's maternal great-great-grandmother was a Jew. Because Jewish identity is passed through the mother's line, this meant that, at least according to Jewish law, the King was kosher.
Wallace, and producers Evan Beloff and Ari Cohen, decided to drive from Montreal to Memphis in a Winnebago in search of proof of Elvis's Jewishness. They enlisted humorist Jonathan Goldstein (now a producer at NPR's "This American Life"), to act as their "creative idea guy." To add theological weight, they brought on board Rabbi Reuben Poupko, of Montreal's Beth Israel Beth Aaron Synagogue. The rabbi's job was to interpret the religious and historical significance of their findings along the way and to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over Elvis's grave at Graceland.
The cast was almost complete. "Every film needs a star," Wallace said, "and since Elvis is gone, I figured Schmelvis would be perfect." Hartal, who'd never visited Memphis, leapt at the opportunity to see where his hero had lived, loved, and died.
Wallace also had a subversive reason for inviting Schmelvis. "Elvis Presley is the most Christian of all pop culture icons," he said, "and I wondered how his devout Southern fans, like the ones who gather for the candlelight vigil at Graceland during Elvis Week every year, would react to the news that their God-fearing, gospel-singing idol was actually a Jew. I figured they'd take one look at Schmelvis and freak out." The plan, Wallace says, was to film the cast and crew getting chased out of Memphis by "anti-Semitic, pitchfork-wielding rednecks."
Nothing of the sort happened. For one thing, Elvis fans ate Schmelvis up. "Everybody loved him," said Wallace. "The constant attention he received interfered with our filming. We kept having to pull him away from disappointed fans who wanted their pictures taken with him." Shaking his head, Wallace says, "Memphis is the place where irony goes to die."
Hartal isn't surprised by Elvis fans' response. Strictly, he is not an Elvis impersonator. "I'm actually an Elvis tribute artist," he says. "Which means that I'm on a slightly higher level than an impersonator, because I also compose. I take Elvis's songs and throw in Yiddish lyrics. Basically, my formula is shtick plus Elvis equals Schmelvis.
"I've always had a spiritual link to Elvis," Hartal says. "I first heard Hound Dog when I was seven or eight, and it just hit me in the head like a rock. I loved everything about Elvis--the look, the moves, and especially the voice, the way it speaks to you directly. I knew I wanted to be just like the King. I had tickets to see him in concert, for my bar mitzvah, the day after he died. I was devastated."
It's not the audiences that sustain him as an artist, says Hartal: "The people I perform for are very old and low functioning. Sometimes the biggest reaction I get is if someone opens their eyes, or maybe smiles. But I love what I do, and I'm a natural performer. And when I do Elvis, I really capture his electricity."
That nothing went as planned is precisely what makes the film work. At Presley's birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., Rabbi Poupko approaches a motorcycle cop and asks if he knew that Elvis was a Jew. "You learn something new everyday," replied the cop, who all but yawns. A Memphis woman tells Goldstein she doesn't see why Elvis's Jewishness matters, so Goldstein ups the ante. He tells her with a straight face that a group of New York Jews plan to dig up Elvis and bury him in a cemetery for Jewish celebrities. "Are you Jewish?" she asks suddenly.
"No!" Goldstein snaps back defensively.
When they enter Schmelvis in an Elvis impersonator contest at the Memphis Airport Holiday Inn, the crew discovers that Schmelvis doesn't know the complete lyrics to a single Elvis song. A rival impersonator finally teaches Schmelvis the words to "Amazing Grace," but before he can get on stage, the show's coordinator--Elvis's former veterinarian, Doc Franklin--warns Schmelvis about making a religious statement. The two get in a spat and Schmelvis withdraws.
"I kept thinking, 'This is the worst disaster of my life,'" says Beloff. "At every step of the way it spun out of control, and we were at each other's throats constantly, fighting over what this film is about. But Max realized early on that something clever was going on, and he turned the cameras on us and filmed everything that happened." The result is an odd, entertaining movie that is part "60 Minutes" and part "Seinfeld."
Schmelvis and Rabbi Poupko turn out to be a high-maintenance pair who make no attempts to conceal their disdain for each other. As a Lubavitcher Jew, Schmelvis is prone to proselytizing, and spends much of the trip trying to "convert" the crew--all but the soundman are variously observant Jews. Poupko, a chain-smoking Orthodox rabbi with a tongue like Don Rickles, warns Schmelvis to back off, and pooh-poohs his act. "He doesn't look like Elvis. If he's an Elvis impersonator, I can be Robert Redford's impersonator."
The film never establishes precisely what Elvis thought of his Jewishness, but there are plenty of clues. Elvis' mother informed him of his heritage when he was a boy, it turns out, but counseled him to keep it to himself. A practicing Christian, the King loved matzo-ball soup and tzimmes, and wore a gold pendant reading chai, the Hebrew word for alive. He had a wristwatch that alternately flashed the Star of David and the Christian cross. When his mother died, Elvis put a Star of David on her tombstone.
Should we care? Somehow, the film succeeds at making a deeper point, both about being Jewish and being Elvis. After their Memphis debacle, the crew flies to Israel to plant a tree for Elvis in the Haddash Forest, a ritual honoring Jews who died in the Diaspora. The Jews there care even less than the Southern Gentiles about Elvis's faith. As the group sinks deeper in despair, Schmelvis fires at Goldstein: "Never mind if Elvis is a Jew. Are you a Jew?" The rabbi, despite himself, sides with Schmelvis. Perhaps, he says, Elvis serves as a cautionary tale for all modern Jews who've lost touch with their roots and identity.
On the outskirts of Jerusalem, at the Elvis Inn, a gas station/café/shrine that boasts the world's largest Elvis statue, a busload of Palestinian schoolchildren arrives from the Gaza strip. The teacher asks if Schmelvis would perform for them. "Suddenly, Schmelvis, who's never met an Arab in his life and is not particularly fond of them, has all these Palestinian kids dancing and going wild for him," says Wallace. "The kids knew Schmelvis was the enemy--he's wearing a yarmulke and the Star of David--but they didn't care. The Palestinian teacher turned to me [off-camera] and said, 'Elvis brings peace to the Middle East.'"
"The irony of all this struck me later," Wallace says. "Schmelvis ignites sectarian conflict among a bunch of Jews in the Winnebago. But as Elvis, he becomes this unifying force that goes way beyond himself."
And indeed, for one brief moment, at the feet of Schmelvis, there was peace in the Holy Land.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Top Ten Onion Religion Stories.
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