Part I of Chutzpah’s essay on the history of Jewish Rock and Roll found Jews cultivating the Black sound and then dominating the infant artform as songwriters, disk jockeys, cutting-edge producers and risk-taking record executives in the 1950s. That era lasted less than a decade as a new generation of young singer-songwriters began to save their best material for themselves. An epochal change swept through the industry, led in part by a handful of politically motivated Jewish folksingers who, in turn, opened the door to an explosion of Jewish stage talent, ushering in the next era of Jewish Rock and Roll—the performers.
The Jewish invasion started with the greatest Jewish performer of them all, Elvis Presley. Surprise, surprise, if you haven’t heard already that the King of Rock and Roll was Jewish and certainly cognizant of it. The Wall Street Journal provided the scoop in 1998, followed by intriguing research by historian Elaine Dundy who assembled the details in her fascinating book Elvis and Gladys. Dundy’s conclusions regarding the maternal lineage of Elvis’s family is based on well-documented evidence and seems spot on. Her investigation revealed that Elvis’s great-great grandmother, Martha Tackett, was no doubt Jewish, maybe not all that surprising in a family that had an eclectic of lineage including Cherokee. The Jewish maternal side ran uninterrupted to Gladys Presley whose only living child was named Elvis Aron Presley—Aron is presumed to be a common misspelling of Aaron, the brother of Moses. (Elvis’s twin brother was stillborn.) Rabbinic law allows that one’s Jewishness is determined by the law of succession through mothers, conclusively settling the question of whether Elvis was Jewish. And even though naysayers point out that Elvis attended a Baptist church, was nearly unparalleled in his singing of Christian hymns, yada yada yada, the fact remains that any Jew who adopts another faith is never considered an ex-Jew, but rather he or she remains Jewish, though as an apostate.
There are many instances of further anecdotal evidence, often supported by eyewitness accounts. Of course, many occurred over 70 years ago and are open to interpretation, depending on what you want to believe. However, there is no disputing that, during Elvis’s teenage years, the Presleys lived in a two-story house located in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Memphis called the Pinch and that Rabbi Fruchter and his family lived above them. Elvis would often visit and dine with them and for years served as the Rabbi’s shabbos “helper,” performing tasks for his Orthodox neighbors that they were not permitted to do during the Sabbath. During those years, Elvis often carried a yarmulke in his pocket and certainly had a habit of wearing it when in the Fruchter home.
When Elvis’s beloved mother died, the King designed her tombstone with a prominent Star of David on it (as well as Christian symbols). Soon after her passing, he began to donate heavily to Jewish charities in Memphis, perhaps out of respect for his mother’s faith. In one instance, he gave $150,000 (no chump change in those days) to the Memphis Hebrew Academy and donated funds for a new room at the Memphis Jewish Community Center.