The Jewish World of Elvis Presley by Roselle Kline Chartock

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The Jewish World of Elvis Presley by Roselle Kline Chartock

Post by MikeFromHolland »


‘The Jewish World of Elvis Presley’ (November 2020) by Roselle Kline Chartock

"As I discovered, Elvis is the least prejudiced of people; considering his background — coming from the deep South, from a deeply religious fundamentalist Christian family, in an area where anti-Semitism was certainly present — he went above that and he discovered for himself that prejudice was evil."


Great Barrington — I first met Roselle Chartock more than two decades ago; it was 1998, and — after graduating from college, living in Boston and working in arts management for two years — I decided I wanted to become a teacher. I enrolled in her Foundations of Education course at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts where, as a post-baccalaureate, I often bristled when asked to sing in class or otherwise examine my own vulnerability in front of my peers. A handful of years later, when pursuing my master’s degree, I elected Chartock’s Multicultural Education seminar where, in addition to weekly lectures and roundtable discussions, we were invited into her family home to observe Yom Kippur. While I went on to earn my Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Wesleyan University, the lessons I learned in Roselle Chartock’s classroom are deep and profound; they extend far beyond my knowledge that the Kol Nidre is recited three times on the Jewish Day of Atonement and stem from something more singular and pervasive: Roselle Chartock is not only incredibly knowledgeable, but she is also wildly passionate about instigating conversation as a means of sharing her knowledge on myriad topics.

Suffice it to say I was elated at the chance to speak with Chartock upon the release of her newest book, “The Jewish World of Elvis Presley,” which became available on Amazon late last month. During Elvis’ heyday, Chartock “really didn’t pay a lot of attention” to him; instead, she was busy focusing on her own studies, raising a family and ultimately teaching. “It did affect me greatly when I saw what happened as a result of [Elvis’] addiction to prescription drugs which, at that time, was not a big in-the-headlines kind of story” when compared with the opioid crisis of today, Chartock shared. Chartock was fortunate to speak with some of Elvis’ close friends, who called his decline “a slow suicide” resulting in many overdoses prior to his death in 1977; it was widely speculated that, had his mother lived (she died in 1958, just four years after Elvis made his breakthrough), he never would have become an addict. Alas, I digress.


It was Elvis’ mother who sat him down, when he was very young, and said something along the lines of: “You know, Elvis, we have Jewish blood, but I don’t want you to talk about it because people don’t like Jews,” a prime example being his father, Vernon. “I have reams of material from [Elvis’ longtime friend] Marty Lacker’s perspective on Vernon [Presley’s] anti-Semitism; it’s really quite amazing and I do quote some of it, but I dare not quote all of it.” This type of exploration, along with a pair of essential questions, guides the book that chronicles Elvis Presley’s lifelong affinity for Jews. In our chat earlier this week, I was keen to uncover what led Chartock to this particular research and the many factors that influenced the topic on which she ultimately landed.

Hannah Van Sickle: I first met you with a guitar slung across your lap at MCLA; can you tell me a bit about the role music has played in your life?

Roselle Chartock: Music has been part of my passion as far back as I can remember. Growing up in Hudson, New York, my parents took me to Tanglewood from the time I was a little kid. I was brought up with a lot of good, classical music and then, as I got into my teenage years, I was swept away by people like Joan Baez, whom I decided I was going to emulate in any possible way (not that my voice ever had the abilities that hers did). I never owned a guitar until I was 20 years old … but every kind of music was part of my life, and I continue to find great inspiration and rewards from listening to music. When it got to the point that I was teaching, and I had learned all of these folk songs — from Buffy Sainte-Marie to Pete Seeger — a light went on: These are songs that are from the people, of the people, by the people, and they teach history. With that in mind, I began to use song as a vehicle in my classroom, first as an elementary-school teacher, then as a middle-school teacher. I used songs related to the Vietnam War, both pro and con, like “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” which was clearly supporting the war; and then there was Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” about going in deeper and deeper and we’ve gotta get out. I would sing both sides; that was always one of the things I felt was very important, was to show that these songs showed a variety of points of view. I believe music is a primary source in many cases. I [also] loved rock ‘n’ roll: I danced to it, I sang to it; my very first Elvis record was “Heartbreak Hotel.” I never was a huge fan of his … but the time I discovered him, and discovered what a genius he was and what incredible music he produced with that voice, was when I did the research for this book.

HVS: At first glance, I can see this book combines a trio of your interests: multiculturalism, education and music. How did you land on Elvis?

RC: Everything I do and teach has to do with education about the irrational nature of prejudice and how destructive it is and how all of the causes are very clear. Prejudice is an evil in this world and is also part of human nature, but it is something that we can diminish — to a certain extent — through education. As I discovered, Elvis is the least prejudiced of people; considering his background — coming from the deep South, from a deeply religious fundamentalist Christian family, in an area where anti-Semitism was certainly present — he went above that and he discovered for himself that prejudice was evil. [In the preface I address:] How did I get to this crazy subject? Nobody knows that [Elvis] was Jewish; I didn’t know this when I started the research, for goodness sake. I’ll tell you why I started this: I don’t collect a lot of things, but one thing I do love and collect is 1940s vintage dresses — and I don’t just collect them, I wear them. I think they have a charm and an originality that we’ve lost in a lot of our daily garb. I was lying in bed one night … thinking about vintage clothing … and suddenly, and I don’t know why, [Elvis] appears in my head. I remember seeing him in these plaid jackets and really wild clothes, and I thought: “Now there’s a guy who really knew how to dress.” Then I wondered, and I’m not sure why: “Who came up with all these outfits?” So I put my glasses on and plugged into my phone: “Who was Elvis Presley’s tailor?” What came up was the Lansky Brothers in Memphis, and I remember thinking, “OMG, he had a Jewish tailor.” Come to find out, not only was Bernard Lansky (and his brother) Elvis’ tailor, but they were his friends. In fact, one of the most heartwarming stories in the book is about how Bernard Lansky came to know and love Elvis — it turned out that he not only clothed him through his whole life, but the suit that Elvis was buried in was from the Lansky Brothers clothing store. I was fascinated. The next morning I got to wondering if he had other Jewish friends, and that’s where it all began. It was like an onion — and I know that’s an old analogy of people doing research — but this really was my peeling of an onion: Every little piece that I took off [revealed] something else about his inner circle, his entourage (the Memphis Mafia), half of whom were Jewish.


HVS: Is there a particularly surprising nugget you learned about Elvis while researching this book that stands out from the others?

RC: That [Elvis] had an affinity for Jews and Judaism, and the fact that he had so many Jewish friends; and thirdly that he was such a sensitive, philosophical, humane, unprejudiced person. What more can you learn? Such eye-opening things to learn about someone you just thought of as a swivel-hipped rock and roller. The image that I have tried to portray is of a very different side of Elvis Presley, and one that I admired tremendously. He gave millions upon millions upon millions of dollars to over 50 different charities, including the Memphis Jewish Community Center, which gave him a free membership when he didn’t have any money, and then became the place he’d play racquetball in the middle of the night, when he became famous, so that no one would be around to bother him. My discovery that he not only had [Jewish] ancestry, but that he had best friends, he was very interested in Jewish literature and Jewish music, in Jewish philosophy. Take his hairdresser, Larry Geller, for instance. Their first meeting was the beginning of a very close spiritual and intellectual relationship in which Elis asked Larry: “Please, try and help me answer some of the questions I have about the meaning of my life?” He asked Larry this type of question, and Larry — a vegetarian and yoga practitioner — gave Elvis books from Eastern traditions and on Jewish mysticism, and Elvis ate it up. The Kabballah answered a lot of the questions he was seeking answers to. Elvis was a genius. We all know the rock ‘n’ roll elicited screams from every one of the teenage girls in his audience, but that’s not what I’m talking about. His gospel music is going to live forever; it’s just gorgeous. As you know, I’m Jewish, but I love his Christmas album. His Christmas songs are fabulous and, interestingly, a lot of them were written by Jewish songwriters.

HVS: Can you tell me a bit about your own Jewish heritage and how it has shaped you and your work over the years?

RC: None of these books would be written if I weren’t a Jew in America. The truth is we are a minority, number one; number two, in Hudson, we were very much a minority. I can count maybe the total number of fingers on my hand the number of Jews in the high school that I went to. There is a consciousness of being Jewish when you are part of a minority in a place where the majority of people really think you are kind of different. Not that they don’t like you — I don’t remember any prejudice in Hudson, [and] all my friends were Christian except for my very immediate two best friends — but you didn’t date Jewish boys because there weren’t many to choose from and that was my whole life. I went to a college where I was, again, in the minority (although Skidmore is definitely one of those schools that was much more progressive in admitting Jews), so, yes, you can’t help but be conscious. The fact that my religion plays a role in all of my writing is because of my being so conscious of it and coming to be aware of who are the Jews of America. As I read more and more, and became more conscious of history, I frankly was very proud of what I learned about some of the contributions that Jews made to this society and to the world — even Elvis shared his thoughts about Jews and their impact on history. Geller quotes Elvis as telling him: “You know, Larry, when you think about it, our whole modern civilization is built on Jewish thinkers. Look at the Jewish religion. Jesus was a Jewish boy and a rabbi. And in psychology, there was Sigmund Freud. All of our science is Albert Einstein. And look what’s going on in Communist Russia. That was all started by Karl Marx. Listen, man, if we went back into everyone’s family tree, we’d find that everybody living today has some Jewish blood and that we all come from the same place.”

Roselle Kline Chartock.jpg

HVS: You have written before about deeply frightening times in our nation’s history; the publication of this book, in today’s deeply divided America, feels particularly timely. Could you have anticipated this when you first began researching your topic?

RC: It’s unsettling beyond words. I can’t even describe my rage and my anger about human nature, really. So number one, I’m not surprised. Anyone who has studied the Holocaust, and the causes of the Holocaust, understands it is part of human nature; we used to teach about the different philosophies of human nature, and Thomas Hobbes was my favorite philosopher: He basically identified the fact that humans have a very negative side to them — a very aggressive, selfish side — and when they are frustrated and when they feel weak, as if they failed, they lash out; they use that aggression. Gordon Allport, a Harvard psychologist, came up with a very beautiful, simple explanation of prejudice: F (failure) yields to A (aggression, anger) yields to D (displacement); in other words, scapegoating: laying the blame on innocent people. That was his explanation of prejudice, and that’s my explanation of what human nature can be characterized by. It is very, very frightening. So the fact that what’s happening right now is not, to me, surprising, because I know that, throughout history, this is how humans have behaved. What is frightening to me is that it is never going to change. But, as I’ve said to my students, any change always comes incrementally. If we can, through education or whatever other means, educate people about why they are acting that way, then maybe we can change. In my doctoral dissertation, among other things, I asked a question: “Can we change attitudes through education?” The outcome of [the complicated process] revealed that while those who were somewhat prejudiced before learning about the Holocaust no longer held those prejudices after, those students who were very prejudiced at the beginning, you couldn’t get them over the line through education. I think we are dealing with this population right now: 72 million people voted [for Trump], so I am not surprised. I am angry, but I’m not surprised.


About the author: Roselle Kline Chartock is professor emerita of education at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts; she also taught social studies for 15 years at Monument Mountain Regional High School. She is co-editor of an anthology on the Nazi holocaust and author of two education texts. Most recently, Chartock published “Windsor Mountain School: A Beloved Berkshire Institution.” After 45 years of teaching on all levels, Chartock is now an artist and writer and lives with her family in the Berkshire Hills. Her most recent publications include “Educational Foundations: An Anthology” and a chapter in “Including Music in a Study of the Holocaust.” She continues to write, lecture and offer workshops on the subject of the Holocaust.


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