Tablet magazine has a charming podcast (originally broadcast on Santa Monica public radio station KCRW-FM, they note) of Memphis native Harold Fruchter, son of the late Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, reminiscing about his family’s relationship with Elvis Presley. Elvis lived downstairs from the Fruchters as a teenager, befriended them and occasionally served as their Shabbos goy. Elvis’s and Harold’s mothers were friendly and Mrs. Fruchter sometimes helped the impoverished Presleys with the grocery bills. Fruchter says he once heard that Elvis had made a donation to a Jewish organization to honor the Fruchters, and he found that most gratifying.
It’s a lovely piece, and quite appropriate to the time of year. Elvis died on August 16, 1977, which means his yahrzeit would be the 2nd of Elul. That fell this year on Thursday, August 28. But why would the Hebrew date of Elvis Presley’s death be of any significance? Ah — therein lies a tale. The fact is that Elvis Presley was himself Jewish, at least halachically. And as you’re about to find out, he was quite proud of that fact.
This isn’t the first time that various Fruchters have told the story of their family’s relationship with Elvis. It’s an incomplete narrative, because it appears they weren’t aware that Elvis was himself Jewish. If they’d known, it seems highly unlikely the rabbi would have let him serve as Shabbos goy. It would have amounted to suborning chilul Shabbos.
I found out about Elvis’s Jewish background the first time (of many) that I visited Memphis, back in the mid-1990s. I was there to speak at the Memphis Jewish Community Center. Heading into town from the airport, the center director, the irreplaceable Barrie Weiser, described their recently completed building renovation. In his animated description he mentioned the fact that they’d had to demolish a room donated to the center decades earlier by Elvis Presley. The plaque, dedicating the room, so Barrie recalled, to Elvis’s mother, who had some sort of Jewish background, had been retired to a storeroom.
Barrie went on to tell me that Elvis was a life member of the JCC, largely because he found it convenient to come there after midnight and play racquetball. Elvis being a major donor, the caretaker didn’t mind opening the place after hours for him. (It didn’t hurt that he was the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, I thought to myself.)
The next day I went on my first pilgrimage to Graceland. I was in for a series of shocks. First, there was nothing convenient about it. It was way across Memphis from the JCC. Elvis played racquetball at the JCC because he wanted to be at the JCC. Something mysterious was behind this.