August 16, 2013, - 7:55 pm
Today is the 36th anniversary of the death of the great American talent, Elvis Aaron Presley, after his degradation into a life of drugs and unhealthy living. Overweight and with all kinds of substances in his system, on August 16, 1977, the 42-year-old Presley was found dead on the bathroom floor. On this site, I’ve often written that Elvis–according to Jewish law–was Jewish (descending from his Jewish great-grandmother, Martha Tackett) and about his Jewish roots and the things he did that identified with Judaism. There have been some baseless detractors (among them intermarriage promoter Nate Bloom who has nothing to back his detracting and gets a lot of things wrong), who claim that the story isn’t true or has been “debunked,” but in fact it is true and has not been debunked, including the fact of the original tombstone that he had made for his late mother, bearing both a Jewish star and a cross. But Elvis’ third cousin is the original source of the story as told in the well-researched and documented “Elvis and Gladys (Southern Icons Series),” by historian and biographer named Elaine Dundy, and I’ve heard from some of Elvis’ other cousins who’ve confirmed that there were, indeed, Jewish roots in the family. And–since 36 is a good luck number in Judaism*–it’s auspicious that near this 36th anniversary of his death, a new book has been released, that is–as its author says–the final word on Elvis’ Jewish roots, confirming them in detail.
Elvis Wearing Jewish “Chai” (“Life”) Necklace)
Howard T. Senzel, author of “Elvis Presley and the American Spirit,” has written what he says is “the last word on Elvis and Judaism, not just the symbolic biographical facts but the actual impact Elvis had on the American Jewish Experience.” Howard sent me several excerpts from the book, including this one:
Elvis Presley’s mother, Gladys Love Smith, was born April 25, 1912, the fourth daughter of Bob and Doll Smith. Bob was the son of Obe Smith and Ann Mansell, both of whom were part Native American. Bob made liquor, which was illegal in Mississippi. Octavia Smith, called Doll because she was so small and cute, was born 1876 the second daughter of White Mansell. White Mansell was the son of William Mansell and Morning White Dove, a Cherokee daughter. As White’s sister was the mother of Doll, she and her husband were first cousins. Their father and uncle, William, was a rich planter, an immigrant of Scotch Irish descent. Actually, the Mansells were Normans, who wound up in Scotland, but when they arrived in America, the largest group of ethnics was Scotch Irish, so they were too. White was the son of a rich man. He grew up in a large house, but by 1900, he was living in a tiny shack, in Tupelo, working shares. From the beginning of Southern culture, owning land was a sacred aspect of identity. Farming somebody else’s land for a percentage of the crop when they kept the books was the dreaded fate for victims of slavery or other dire luck, but the South was still in ruins and it was a life. In 1870, White Mansell married Martha Tackett. She was the daughter of a Jewish couple, Abner and Nancy Tackett, who were devoted to her. There were two boys, Sidney and Jerome, both devout and observant Jews, but their sister was not religious. Martha converted for White. They had four daughters, then two sons. All six children grew up knowing their Jewish heritage and doing some of the rituals. Doll Smith was Elvis’ maternal grandmother. She knew she was Jewish and so did her children. In the Diaspora of remote rural America, so far from the centers of rabbinic learning, knowing the story and telling it was a near equivalent of devotion. Gladys knew enough of her mother’s origin to pass along to Elvis a sense of Judaism as something precious and sacred, and part of what made him special. We know from his autopsy that she did not have him circumcised, but she told her little boy about Martha and Nancy and their Jewishness.
The rural south was inhabited by an established minority of Jews. Most of them were peddlers. They arrived in wagons pulled by tired mules. They plied their wares with faces of exhaustion and patience. They dealt with women mostly, trading thread, cloth, forks, spoons, pots, pans, pins, nails, needles, thimbles, and a thousand other things. They had grinding stones that could sharpen anything. They never smiled, never frowned. When there was no money, they traded for eggs, chickens, dried meat, vegetables, berries, corn or hay for the mules. No one was afraid of them or said bad things about them. They served as a reminder that there was a big world out there full of exotic others. But for Elvis, Jews were never aliens, never mysterious, they were family.
Check out Howard’s book, and read my previous column for more details on Elvis’ Jewishness.
Get Yours . . .
Elvis Presley, Rest In Peace and Zichrono LiVrachah [“Blessed Be His Memory,” which is what Jews say about other deceased Jews in place of RIP].
* Why is 36 a good luck number in Judaism, you might ask? Well, in Hebrew, every letter corresponds to a number. The word “chai” (no, not the tea), which means “life” in Hebrew, is an important word, because it symbolizes the “Tree of Life” in the Garden of Eden in Genesis (and for other reasons). It corresponds to the number 18, and 18 and its multiples are good luck numbers, including and particularly 36, which is double “chai.” Often when people give wedding presents or gifts of money, they’ll give multiples of 18.
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