Ten miles outside of Jerusalem, next to the Neve Ilan gas station is the Elvis Diner, a restaurant whose raison d’être is a tribute to Elvis Presley. A 12-foot high golden statue of the rock and roll icon stands in front, and the Elvis-o-rama just ramps itself up further and further as you enter. From the music on the jukebox to the decorations on the wall to the hundreds of artifacts displayed, museum-like, about the eatery, the place is all about one man and one man only: Elvis Aaron Presley.
The food is a reasonable cross between an Israeli hummus-and-schnitzel joint and a 1950s American hamburger stand. There’s no claim to fine dining, but it’s clean and friendly, and the psychedelic bathrooms alone are worth the visit. Actually, no one comes to eat in this restaurant because of the food anyway. It’s all about communing with the crooner of “Heartbreak Hotel.” On the anniversary of the rock star’s birth, Elvis impersonators from all over Israel come to compete and pay tribute to the most successful solo recording artist in history.
It is worth a stop to see Chinese tourists, Scandinavian backpackers and Israeli soldiers on leave all mingling among the memorabilia. It is a place that you could easily imagine in Tennessee or New York, or maybe even in London or Paris, but in the Judean Hills it is a notable non-sequitur… and a delightful break from Ottomans and Crusaders, prophets and kings.
“The Elvis American Café” (the official name) has been owned and operated by the same family with the same theme and the same menu for 40 years. For any restaurant, that is an impressive run. As it happens, I too arrived in this country 40 years ago as a bright eyed 18-year-old Zionist dreamer. It is instructive to see how far Israel has come. Barely 3 million people lived in Israel in 1977 and they were still proud of their Jaffa oranges and rugged farmers. In that Israel, the Elvis Diner was a daring flirtation with globalism (a term that did not yet exist). Most of the country was still first generation refugees who had had little or no contact with rock and roll. A restaurant dedicated to Elvis the Pelvis was a bold internationalist statement. Exotic. Original. Risqué.
I miss that Israel, still young and naive. People sold music from bootlegged cassettes in the bus station, and the town square was an actual place to get together. Hitchhiking was universal, and was basically just getting a ride from a neighbor. I do not want to paper over the problems of that era (and there were many), but only to consider that there was something enchanting in Israel of 1977. Part of that magic was that a little diner with an Elvis theme could be a far-reaching and almost revolutionary statement about the country’s longing for a place in the community of nations.
Because my life in Israel parallels the life of the Elvis Diner, nostalgia is inevitable. I sit there (with the picture of Elvis on my coffee mug) and review my early years as a kibbutz volunteer, my days as a lone soldier (much like those stopping here for hummus), the chapter in which my wife and I did tag-team parenting with three small children, diapers, and kibbutz duties, and my reincarnation as a tour guide, when Elvis became a curious stop for intrepid pilgrims. We all have these snapshots along the way, and we all have a bit of a yen to revisit an earlier version of ourselves. Perhaps that is the appeal of the Elvis Diner as well.
While the arc of 40 years has led this diner from its status as a daring statement of cultural outreach to a bit of a sideshow, it has taken me from my days as a starry-eyed young idealist to a pragmatic and colorful old tour guide. Our paths are not always predictable, but in hindsight, they seem obvious.
One cannot go back in time, and that is for the most part a good thing. But a visit to Elvis is a reminder of simpler days. Back then, one only heard a good song when it came on the one pop music radio station that happened to be playing on your bus or in the restaurant. One would burst into a smile at the opening chords and think, “Oh, I love this song.” Sitting there in the diner as the jukebox plays “Love Me Tender,” I can close my eyes and remember when that was indeed a special moment.