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Schmelvis is Everywhere

by Julie Wiskirchen


A book review of Schmelvis: In Search of Elvis Presley's Jewish Roots
by Jonathan Goldstein and Max Wallace

Spurred by a 1998 Wall Street Journal story that revealed Elvis' Jewish roots, documentarians Jonathan Goldstein and Max Wallace set out to make a film that would get to the bottom of Elvis' Jewishness and reveal anti-semitism in Elvis fans. They went to Memphis during Elvis Week, hoping to get fans' appalled reactions to the news that Elvis was Jewish on video. Instead, the filmmakers discovered that Elvis fans are a tolerant bunch. Elvis fans were more concerned with finding the most realistic velvet Elvis painting than with coming to terms with the news that Elvis' great-great-grandmother was Jewish and therefore, according to Jewish law, so was The King. This lack of reaction from the Elvis fans and assorted Southerners could have killed the film, but the filmmakers perservered and ended up with a film that reveals much about Elvis, his Jewishness, and the wackiness that ensues when eight Jews hit the road in a "Winnebagel."

This book serves as a companion piece to the film, and as I read it I really wished I could see the movie, which is currently on the Jewish film festival circuit. It's somewhat hard to keep the eightcharacters straight when the book just presents them in flashes of dialogue. The book does reveal the film crew's grocery lists, spice girl names, and opinions of what the Winnebagel smells like, but it fails to make all eight personalities distinct.

Nevertheless, the book is an entertaining read and Schmelvis, the titular Hasidic Elvis impersonator, emerges as a compelling character. He's extremely religious and doesn't seem to like performing much. He doesn't even know many Elvis songs, preferring to sing "Hava Nagila." Worst of all, he fails to enjoy Elvis Week, holy week for Elvis fans. The crew members have to goad him into putting on his jumpsuit (Oy, it's so humid!) and mingling with the adoring crowds. He tells his wife, "They were loving me, but I was schvitzing like a dog and I just wanted to get home and take a shower. I would have liked to just walk around looking at all the weirdos and the freaks but I couldn't because I was the weirdo and the freak."

As quirky as the project it describes, Schmelvis tells its story in many ways: as a journal written by the participants, through the goofy poems written by co-producer
Ari Cohen, through dialogue between the Winnebagel denizens and the people they encounter, recipes, interviews with private detectives and Elvis' associates, email, etc. It's a quick read, but the book does cover a significant amount of Elvis history and lore, as well as a lot of miles on the Winnebagel.

The reader is able to see the genesis of the film, which occurs when co-producer Evan Beloff discovers the Wall Street Journal story. We then see Evan fleece his wealthy Aunt Pearlie out of her retirement savings in order to finance the film. Next the producers gather a crew and recruit their star, the cantankerous Schmelvis who requires a lot of convincing to join the project, as well as a Rabbi who becomes Schmelvis' nemesis in hilarious fashion. The two bicker constantly, as Schmelvis finds the Rabbi to be not serious enough about his faith, and the Rabbi finds Schmelvis' piety to be tiresome. This exchange between the filmmakers describes the relationship which provides the book with drama and humor:

Evan: There's a little tension.

Jonathan: A little tension? Let me recap. First, Schmelvis told him to start acting like a Rabbi instead of a rodeo clown. Then the Rabbi told him that he has B.O. Then Schmelvis tells him he wants to break a bottle over his head.

Evan: You need that kind of back and forth in a documentary. You need a little conflict. You can't have everyone standing around patting each other on the back. Where's the fun in that?

Jonathan: Right. In Gimme Shelter you had the Hell's Angels. We have a defrocked Rabbi.

This bit of conversation captures the meta-documentary approach of the filmmakers. They realize their place in the history of documentary film is going to be akin to the place of "Tigerman" amongst Elvis' gazillion recordings. It'll be an amusing novelty at best. However, given that their premise was blown, and that they don't really discover about Elvis' secret allegiance to Judaism (besides his love for matzoh ball soup), at least not enough to counteract all those gospel songs he recorded, the filmmakers do manage to produce a witty and thought-provoking film (at least, as far as I can tell from this book, they do). I left the book learning more about what Judaism means to Jews, and I had my perception of the tolerance of Elvis fans reinforced. After all, these are fans whose icon emerged from a shotgun shack to public housing to superstardom and a tackily furnished mansion. This is an icon who gave away Cadillacs as if they were toothpicks and who once flew across the country for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Elvis wasn't a fella who put on airs and neither do his fans. The filmmakers discover they were the ones with the prejudice, with their preconceived notion that Elvis fans and Southerners in general would be anti-Semitic.

Will the book appeal to Elvis fans? Probably not. It's a bit on the irreverant side (how dare they reveal Elvis wasn't circumcised!). But students of kitsch will appreciate this journey, which takes the filmmakers from Canada to Memphis and eventually to Israel, where they scramble to get some footage of an Israeli-owned Elvis cafe to add some oomph to their story. Beyond the physical journey, the filmmakers' journeys toward coming to terms with their own Jewish identities leaves an impact on the reader after the laughter fades. I enjoyed the ride and I hope that the film gets wider distribution so I can finally sort out Embittered Spice from Show-Me-The-Money Spice and see Schmelvis thrust his pelvis.

Visit the official Schmelvis site for the story and photos of the Schmelvis odyssey

Go here to book the real Schmelvis for your next bar mitzvah or bachelorette party

Visit the ECW Press website to learn more about the book

Read Julie Wiskirchen's account of her visit to Graceland during the 20th anniversary Elvis Week

What do you think about Elvis being Jewish?


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