The Jewish World Of Elvis Presley
by Roselle Kline Chartock
Reviewed by Nigel Patterson, February 2021
McKinstry Place Publishers, USA, 2020, Softcover,252 pages, Illustrated (color/b&w), ISBN-13; 979-8686604445
ELVIS AND JEWS: At first glance these two words may not seem to go together. But the truth is that, despite growing up in a poor, fundamentalist Christian family in the Deep South – an area sometimes known for its anti-semitism – Elvis Presley nonetheless developed a deep affinity to Jews..... There is within this book ample evidence that Presley’s personality as well as his musical gifts were shaped, in part, by his Jewish world (promotion for the book)
The last year has been a busy one for Elvis related books written by academics: Mark Duffett (Elvis Roots, Image, Comeback, Phenomenon), Mathias Haeussler (Inventing Elvis: An American Icon in A Cold War World), Bertel Nygaard (Elvis I Danmark), and most recently, Roselle Kline Chartock (The Jewish World of Elvis Presley).
Many fans may not realise it, but the number of Jews in Elvis’ life was substantial. While it is understandable that as part of Elvis’ ongoing search for meaning in his life he closely studied Judaism, as he did other religions - this does not explain his close affinity with Jews.
In a highly readable and accessible account, Professor Emerita of Education, Roselle Chartock, delves deep into, and answers, two questions:
- what accounted for Elvis’ deep infinity with Jews; and
- what was the nature of his personal relationships with them.
As Ms Chintock notes, Jews make up only 2% of the population, yet are disproportionately part of Elvis’ life and inner circle. In answering the questions, the author discusses Elvis’ Jewish heritage (which he was well aware of) and key friendships and influences throughout his life.
Elvis’ Jewish heritage has been traced back to the union of Nancy Burdine and Oscar Tackett in the 1800’s. Nancy Burdine was Elvis’ great, great grandmother.
Elvis and Billy Smith with David and Debbie Fruchter (photo: Harold Fruchter and Judith Minkove).
NOTE: EIN suspects that it is actually Elvis' cousin Gene Smith in the photo, since Billy Smith would be years younger. Ms Chartock may have confused the names as she did interview Billy Smith for the book.
Many fans will be familiar with the close friendship between the Presley’s and Rabbi Fruchter and his family while living in the duplex at 462 Alabama Street in Memphis. The teenage Elvis would often spend a many hours in the Fruchter’s apartment and he assisted Rabbi Fruchter on Sundays.
By the mid-1950s, a large number of Jews had gravitated to the Memphis area as it had established itself as a growing business hub. In this context, as Elvis started out on his journey to becoming the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll he befriended a number of Jewish business professionals in Memphis. Those he became friends with included Bernard Lansky (clothier), Harry Levitch (jeweller), Dr. Lester Hoffman (dentist), and Ruben Cherry (record store owner).
Elvis’ friendships with Jews was just as strong when his career took off. In the Memphis Mafia, there were (at least) five Jews: George Klein, Mary Lacker, Alan Fortas, Larry Geller, and the only female Memphis Mafia member, Patti Parry. The jury is still out on whether or not there was a sixth, “The Great Speckled Bird”, Lamar Fike.
In discussing the so-called Memphis Mafia, Ms Chartock observes:
There is agreement among many Elvis authors, for example, that at least a few of the guys were simply hangers-on, living off Elvis’ goodwill, though there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about which members were the “parasites” and which ones truly cared about their boss’ well-being.
Other Jews prominent in Elvis’ life included songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, various producers and directors in Hollywood and on TV, and Dr. Nick.
The author notes that Elvis and Milton Berle shared a sense of humor that could be referred to as Jewish humor, as reflected in this exchange (although it should be noted this was scripted):
Berle: I wanna ask you something, Elvis. If I did that thing the way you did it, do you think I could get all the girls?
Elvis: Well, it might not help you get girls. But at your age it would help the blood circulating.
Berle: At my age! You make me sound like a used car.
Among Elvis’ acquaintances, the Jewish connection was also evident. The chapter, Other Jews with Meaningful Connections to Elvis Presley, features names that will be very familiar to most readers. They include, Tony Curtis, Al Dvorin, Barbra Streisand, Jackie Kahane, and Trude Forster (secretary to both Elvis and particularly Colonel Tom Parker).
It is clear when reading The Jewish World of Elvis Presley that Elvis’ relationships with Jews were rich and rewarding. Many of his closest friends were Jews, as were his artistic colleagues and many business people who were able to provide him with his jewelry and fashion needs, and treat his medical conditions (interestingly, while Dr. Nick is discussed in the book, other Jewish doctors Elvis consulted, such as Dr. Max Shapiro, Dr. Elias Ghanem, Dr. Max Jacobson, and Dr. George Kaplan, are not).
Elvis with Bernard Lansky
An aspect of the book I really enjoyed were the detailed sections devoted to many of Elvis’ Jewish friends, including chapters devoted to the Lansky Brothers, the various Jews who wrote for Elvis (Leiber & Stoller, Florence Kaye, Aaron Schroeder, Ben Weisman), the Jewish members of the Memphis Mafia (it is great to have such detailed accounts of Marty, George, Alan, Larry, Patti, and Lamar, conveniently in the one book), and the many many people of Jewish faith who were involved in his Hollywood career. The background stories for many of the people are not only interesting, but rich in detail, and offer often powerful accounts reflecting oppression and adversity. For instance, film director, Norman Taurog, a Russian Jew from Riga, Latvia, whose father ‘had escaped the programs that that had spread through Russia in the late 1800’s’.
Some of the other Jews discussed in the book are Leonard Bernstein, Walter Matthau, Bob Dylan, and photographer, Alfred Wertheimer.
Colonel Tom Parker’s relationship with Jews is also discussed and is an interesting one. Byron Raphael, an employee of the William Morris [Entertainment] Agency, is quoted as saying:
The Colonel was extremely jealous of the very well-bred Jewish guys at William Morris. He resented them, and yet he also needed their respect.
When writing her book, Ms Chintock was confronted by a recurrent question: Was it just coincidence that there were so many Jewish connections in Elvis’ life or was there something more at work? She intriguingly addresses this issue in the first chapter, Elvis: Jewish Roots, Jewish Symbols.
There is much to savour in The Jewish World of Elvis Presley. Other interesting information we learn about includes:
• the origin of the “G” in Elvis’ Circle G ranch;
• the only photographer that Elvis allowed to ‘get up close and personal;
• the Jewish connection with Elvis’ selection as one of the ”Ten Outstanding Young Men of America” in 1971;
• the night legendary guitarist, Eric Clapton (a non-Jew), joined Elvis at the Memphian Theater to watch films;
• the bond Elvis shared with the ‘rabbi of the music business’, and
. how, through his friendships with Jews, Elvis came to influence fashion....
Regarding Elvis and fashion, the author offers a quote by Ann Powers, Senior Curator at the Experience Music Project in Seattle:
“One of the really important ways in which Elvis influenced fashion”, she said, that he bought his clothes at Lansky’s.” Elvis was a white man dressing in Black people’s clothing, just as he was a White man adapting Black music to his own use.”
As foreshadowed in the book’s Preface, the chapter topics have common themes, for example:
Chapter 2: Elvis and the Rabbi upstairs
Chapter 4: Elvis and the Memphis Merchants
Chapter 8: Elvis and Jews in Hollywood and Television
The Jewish World of Elvis Presley also features several fascinating chapters about the Elvis Diner in Israel and a Brief History of Jewish Memphis. There is also a Foreword by Hal Lansky.
A series of color, b&w and sepia images dot the narrative and are both a neat complement and important visual record of the subject matter. A standout b&w image is a double page spread of Elvis and his date, Bobbi Owens, at the counter of the Jefferson Hotel coffee shop in Richmond, Virginia.
The more than 30 pages of End Notes and seven pages of Bibliography will please those wanting to further explore the book’s themes.
Verdict: Readers will recognise many of the stories in The Jewish World of Elvis Presley, but certainly not have read them all in one volume. Roselle Chartock’s thoughtful and informative release is an important one – it offers a rich archival record and cogent analysis of Elvis’ friendships/relationships with Jews (rather than his relationship with Judaism). And by drawing attention to the importance of Jews in Elvis’ life, the book brings to life an aspect of the Elvis story previously viewed as a series of anecdotes, rather than as a coherent theme that was important to Elvis and had a major influence on both his life and career.
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Book Review by Nigel Patterson.
-Copyright EIN February 2021
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
|About the author: Roselle Kline Chartock is a Professor Emerita of Education and a full-time artist and writer, having previously taught on all levels for forty-five years.
Bernard Lansky talks to EIN: EIN's Piers Beagley chews the fat with a man instrumental in Elvis' fashion sense, the great Bernard Lansky. Bernard talks candidly about Elvis, Priscilla, Lisa Marie, the clothes he made for Elvis, Michael Jackson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nicolas Cage and more in a fascinating interview.
In 2002 Lansky doesn't hold back on his views and heading towards 80-years old he can sure say what he likes! The interview captures Bernard's fabulous spirit and energy - Parental guidance advised. Bernard Lansky died Nov 15, 2012 - RIP
Go HERE to this very amusing interview with a great character of the Elvis World.
|Billy Smith, Elvis' cousin, opens up to EIN (Part 1): In the first part of an fascinating two-part interview with EIN, Elvis' cousin Billy Smith talks candidly about Elvis & the family, the early years, his colleagues in the Memphis Mafia, meeting The Beatles and much more. Billy Smith is still working for his living and so it is a real privilege for us that he could spare so much time for this interview. (Interview, Source: EIN. Jan 2006)
|Marty Lacker opens up to EIN: In Part 1 of our two part interview with Memphis Mafia member, Marty Lacker, Marty tells us about the famous celebrities, the pills, marriage and the Memphis Mafia, the $10m concert offer for Elvis to play in front of the Pyramids in Egypt and the real reason Elvis shot out his TV set when Robert Goulet appeared on the screen. Part 2 of our fascinating talk with Marty will be published next week. (Interview, Source: EIN)
Larry Geller new interview with EIN: From 1964 until the very final days Larry Geller was a close friend to Elvis. Perhaps Elvis might have lived longer had he paid more attention to Geller's healthy life-style and managed to shake off the excessive demands of Colonel Parker. With the 30th Anniversary fast approaching Larry was kind enough to answer a lot of questions that fans have raised with EIN and to also tell us something about his new book. Larry has multiple projects happening at this very moment, so EIN extends its sincere thanks to him for sparing us the time for this interview. (Source: EIN, June 2007)
Patti Parry exclusive EIN Interview: Patti Parry spent 17 years being a little sister to Elvis & sometimes noted as being the only female member of the 'Memphis Mafia'.
Patti Parry was, in fact, one of a small number of girls who hung out with Elvis and the guys for many years in L.A. from the time they were young in the early 60s.
Patti was also Elvis' hairdresser but, unlike some, has never bragged about her association with him. It was therefore a pleasure for EIN to get a chance to talk to Patti in her Beverly Hills home about a few of her experiences.
Sadly Elvis’ good friend Patti Parry passed away October 27 2011.
Go HERE to our Exclusive Interview