Schmelvis: Rock 'n' Roll With a Bagel

Like the thousands of pilgrims to Graceland, Montreal native Dan Hartal felt he had a personal connection to The King.

And like some of them, he arrived at the musician's former home in full Elvis regalia: super-powered sideburns, oversized sunglasses, a white jumpsuit and glittery cape.

But Hartal wasn't just any Elvis impersonator -- he was an Hasidic Elvis impersonator.

In other words, Schmelvis had entered the building.

"When I heard 'Hound Dog' as a kid, I just said, 'This is it. This is what I have to be, to sound like,'" Hartal said last week in a telephone interview.

In his quest to learn what it meant to follow both Elvis Presley and ultra-orthodox Judaism, Hartal, in his late 30s, journeyed from Quebec to Jerusalem to Presley's home in Memphis, Tenn. He and his pilgrimage are the subject of a book and upcoming documentary, Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots, which will premiere in the U.S. in August.

"He's a pretty strange guy," producer Evan Beloff said. "He's got an extremely laid-back personality, but when it comes to his religion, he's pretty passionate, bordering on proselytizing. He's a good guy, just caught up in the Schmelvis thing."

Hartal created Schmelvis at the old-age home where he works as a music director, and now performs Yiddish-laden lyrics to Presley tunes like "Schmelvis Chicken Soup" and "Treat Me Like a Mensch."

"I have this formula, this equation I like to give Schmelvis," Hartal said. "It's basically: Schtick plus Elvis equals Schmelvis."

In 1998 a Wall Street Journal article reported on the discovery that Presley may have been Jewish through his maternal great-great grandmother, Nancy J. Burdine. Beloff and director Max Wallace, who directed the controversial Who Killed Kurt Cobain?, decided to do a lighthearted documentary on that quirky fact.

"Elvis was a good Christian boy, but he was also a good Jewish boy at the same time," Wallace said.

The idea of a movie about a Jewish Elvis led them to Schmelvis, and to Wallace's conception that the film would poke fun at what they thought were the backwardness and anti-Semitism of Elvis fans. They were stymied by what they actually found in Memphis on the anniversary of Presley's death in August 2000.

"We were looking for rednecks, basically," Wallace said. "But we got there and we couldn't find rednecks. These were the most tolerant, courteous people we'd met. They said, 'I don't care if Elvis is Jewish, black or crippled. Elvis is Elvis. Elvis is the King.'

"I started to realize we were the rednecks."

And Schmelvis was received like a lost prince coming home.

"Going to Graceland was wicked in a good way," Hartal said. "I was treated as a complete celebrity. The first time being in Graceland, I felt the awe, the inspiration of Elvis. And I realized for the first time how big he still is, and that no one can fill those blue suede shoes. Elvis is the epitome of perfection of a rock star. Elvis was blessed by God. … And I realized he wasn't just an entertainer, he was the King, and this place fulfills a void that no temple and no religious place can fulfill as this place does."

But Schmelvis underwent another spiritual awakening on the other side of the ocean. Three months earlier, Hartal and the film crew went to Israel to plant a tree for Presley, the traditional way to honor a Jew who dies in the diaspora. In Jerusalem, Schmelvis was called upon to put on an impromptu show for Palestinian schoolchildren.

"It was this incredible moment for me to see that Schmelvis, this conservative, right-wing Jewish person, and he's forced to confront this busload of children," Beloff said. "I think he changed, certainly a little bit."

And the children went wild.

"These Arab children, purportedly his enemy, are going crazy for this Star-of-David-wearing Elvis impersonator, and I saw that this wasn't Schmelvis, this was Elvis that was doing this, this unifying force," Wallace said.

Reflecting on that moment, Hartal said ultimately, the conflicts brought about by the world's religions might be defeated by their shared truths.

"The question isn't if you're Jewish or a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim, it's how are you exploring that and how do your actions speak because of that?" Hartal said.

"Here I'm playing for Palestinian kids, and I'm the Jewish Elvis in Jerusalem, and despite all the tribulations and the accusations, Schmelvis brought peace for a while to the Middle East."