He passed away 40 years ago on August 16, 1977. On the Hebrew calendar the date was the second day in the Hebrew month of Elul, 5737. Why a “yahrzeit” for Elvis? As unusual as it may seem, a little known fact about Elvis Presley is that, by the Jewish law of matrilineal descent, Elvis Presley was Jewish.
In her book, “Elvis and Gladys,” historian and biographer Elaine Dundy writes about Elvis Aron Presley’s Jewish heritage. Elvis’ great great maternal grandmother, Nancy Burdine was married to Abner Tackett. “Nancy was of particular interest to Gladys (Elvis’ mother) for her Jewish heritage as Gladys often recounted that Nancy had given her sons, Sidney and Jerome, Jewish names. Nancy and Abner (who some say was half-Jewish himself) had a daughter Martha who married White Mansell. Their daughter, nick-named Doll, was Elvis’ maternal grandmother.”
“Elvis’ grandparents had nine children, among them, a daughter, Gladys Love, who became mother to Elvis Presley. After his mother died, Elvis personally sought to design his beloved mother’s gravesite which included a Star of David on her tombstone. It was Elvis’ decision to honor his Jewish heritage, something his mother was proud of and acknowledged to Elvis at a very early age.
Elvis was born and grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi in a poor area called “The Pinch.” The Pinch was home to what locals called the “rag trade,” the industry born of immigrants, mostly Jewish, who repaired and resold second hand clothing. Presley’s roots go back to the time when Jewish immigrants came to America and established the rag trade there. In fact Elvis’ great great grandmother, Nancy Burdine descended from a family that emigrated from Lithuania, probably around the time of the American Revolution. That’s right. Elvis was a Litvak!
Elvis Aron was born a twin whose brother, Jesse Garon, passed away in infancy. A young cousin recalls a visit she made to the Presley home, where mourners sat on low chairs and where mirrors and pictures were covered in white. “It was years later,” says the cousin, “that I realized that these were Jewish traditions.”
Always aware of his Jewish heritage, Elvis Presley put his pride into action through numerous donations to the Memphis Jewish community.
Each year, for many years, Elvis gave $1,000 or more to each of fifty Memphis-area charities. Presley’s largest contributions were to the Memphis synagogues, the Jewish Federation, and the Memphis Jewish Community Center. Presley even funded several Jewish education programs as well – philanthropic endeavors that received little or no publicity.
Throughout his adult life, Presley reached out to those in need, often paying hospital bills for family members, friends and total strangers. His generosity even reached “The Pinch,” where he renovated the area where he grew up. Close friends report that Presley was adamant that his gifts remain anonymous – and was heard to say, “That’s the Jewish way.”