While writing “Elvis: Jewish Roots, Jewish Symbols,” the first chapter in my book, The Jewish World of Elvis Presley (2020), I was excited when I came across an article by John Beiffus in the Memphis paper, Commercial Appeal (August 15, 2018). He reported that Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), via the efforts of their archivist Angie Marchese, had placed the restored gravestone of Elvis’s mother, Gladys, in the Meditation Garden at Graceland on the sixtieth anniversary of her death. The stone bore a Jewish Star of David opposite the Cross for all to see.
Beiffus described this dramatic event, noting that fans and mourners attending the 2018 Elvis Week would be among the first in decades to encounter the grave marker, which was last seen in 1977. Apparently, it was then that Elvis’s father, Vernon, who was open about his antisemitic views, decided to place the marble stone with the Star of David in storage. He had removed the remains of both his wife and son from Forest Hill Cemetery because of what he said was evidence of grave robbing.
Archivist Marchese said she had been interested in restoring the gravestone to public view ever since she discovered it inside a crate in the Elvis archives now housed inside a 20,000 square foot warehouse that contains an estimated 1.5 million items. Beifuss quotes Marchese as saying, “It was just done to honor Elvis’s mom and to fulfill what we think would have been his wish.”
So what accounted for Marchese’s (and EPE’s) assumption about Elvis’s wishes? It is more than likely they knew it was Elvis’s idea to have the Star placed on his mother’s stone in 1964 (six years after Gladys had died at the age of forty-six.) Elvis’s friends had written about it, having heard from Elvis the story about when his mother told him – as a young boy – that they had Jewish blood, but “not to tell anyone because people don’t like Jews.”
It had been with the help of two of his Jewish friends that Elvis was able to follow through with his plan to design a gravestone with a Star of David, despite Vernon’s apparent displeasure and that of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, as well. George Klein, another of Elvis’s Jewish friends, said that not only did Elvis know about his Jewish heritage, he was also very proud of it.
Interestingly, Elvis’s Jewish roots have been a topic of speculation for more than twenty years. In one of the earliest memoirs written by Elvis’s friends, Larry Geller describes his role as Elvis’s mentor on the subject of Judaism, as well as other religions and philosophies. For example, he introduced Elvis to Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, and the chai, the symbol for long life, that led to Elvis’s wearing one around his neck, as seen in photos from the 1970s. Geller said that Elvis was a seeker of knowledge and read the many books Larry shared with him, perhaps hoping, among other things, to find answers about why he survived, when his twin, Jesse Garon, died at birth.
In addition to Geller’s memoir and the many other personal and anecdotal references I consulted while writing about the question of Elvis’s Jewish heritage, there is also the book, Elvis and Gladys (2004), in which author Elaine Dundy uncovers Elvis’s great, great grandmother, Nancy (Sarah?) Burdine (b. 1825), whose Jewish family arrived in the South from Lithuania in the late 18th century. Dundy traces Burdine’s lineage through five generations until arriving at Gladys Smith Presley. She then explains that, according to Jewish law, if you are, like Elvis, descended from a Jewish woman in an unbroken line of women, you are considered to be a Jew, even if you never identified as one or practiced the religion.
Despite Dundy’s research, I was skeptical about the evidence she provided regarding Elvis’s Jewish roots. It seemed to me there was insufficient documentation, despite the fact that she had interviewed many people and had uncovered some of his genealogy. That’s why I was thrilled when in 2018 Elvis Presley Enterprises confirmed Elvis’s Jewish roots by placing Gladys’s restored headstone – with the Star of David – in the Meditation Garden at Graceland.
As I wrote on the back cover of my book: “At first glance, the words ‘Elvis and Jews’ 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 antisemitism – Elvis Presley nevertheless developed a deep affinity to Jews.” Although I describe in the book several reasons for this affinity, I believe the main reason goes back to that day when Gladys told a young Elvis about their Jewish blood.