(Jewish News) Scottsdale resident Dan Fellner first became aware that Elvis Presley had a connection to Judaism in 2018 when he visited Tupelo, Miss., to write a story for the Arizona Republic about a new self-guided bike tour to see sites related to Elvis’ childhood.

When he went inside the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum, next to the small house where Elvis was born and lived as a small child, he noticed a menorah with Chanukah candles in one of the display cases. “I thought, ‘What was it doing there?’” said Fellner. “I wondered if Elvis had some sort of connection to Judaism.”

That night Fellner went to Shabbat services at Tupelo’s small Reform synagogue, Temple B’nai Israel, located in a quiet residential neighborhood about a 10-minute drive from Elvis’ birthplace. At the synagogue, he was introduced to George Copen, who knew Elvis when they were children. The menorah had belonged to George’s family. George loaned the menorah to a close friend of the Presley family, and it was never returned. George lost track of it until it went on display at the museum. George told Fellner the menorah ultimately ended up with Elvis – he’s seen a photo of Elvis with the hanukkiah. George said he had heard Elvis had Jewish roots, which is why he believed he hung onto it.

“That was the first I had heard of Elvis’ Jewish background,” said Fellner. “I wanted to learn as much about the subject as I could.”

Fellner started to do more research and learned that a book was written about Elvis’ relationship with his mother Gladys. In that book, it was disclosed that Elvis’ great-great-grandmother on his mother’s side was a Lithuanian Jew named Nancy Burdine.

“I spoke to a man named Harold Fruchter. His father was a well-known rabbi in Memphis,” said Fellner. “The Presley family lived in the apartment right below the Fruchters – the two families were close friends – and the Fruchters even used Elvis as a Shabbos goy.” Fruchter later confided in Fellner that had his father been aware of Elvis’s Jewish roots; they wouldn’t have used him as a Shabbos goy.

In the spring of 2021, Fellner went to Graceland in Memphis. That’s where he saw Gladys’ headstone that had a Star of David on it. The headstone has a long and interesting history (Fellner wrote about its history: Elvis Presley was Jewish? A grave marker locked away for 4 decades confirms it). He interviewed Angie Marchese, the head of archives at Graceland, who told him the story of the headstone and said it was decided to put the monument on public display as a tribute to Gladys’ Jewish heritage. While at Graceland, Fellner was also allowed to photograph a diamond-studded chai necklace that Elvis often wore during the last years of his life. He also learned that Elvis gave a lot of money over the years to Jewish organizations.

Fellner discovered that when Gladys died in 1958, her original headstone had just a cross on it. Elvis had the headstone redesigned and added the Star of David in 1964. Fellner wondered why Elvis did this and located the only other person with Elvis when he made that decision in 1964 – a man named Larry Geller. “He was a long-time friend of Elvis and has written several books about Elvis,” said Fellner. “He became known as his ‘spiritual adviser.’” Geller is now in his 80s and lives in Sedona. Fellner was able to interview Geller, who shared some more information.

“I began working with Elvis in April 1964, and several weeks later, we went to Memphis for a hiatus until his next movie started,” said Geller. “The first thing he did was take me to his mother’s gravesite. The two of us stood there in silence for a few moments, then he declared that he wanted a Star of David put there – he felt his mother would also want this.” Several weeks later, the Star of David was added to the headstone.

Geller continued, “Elvis’ Jewishness goes quite deep, and of course, we spoke of this many times over the years, and he was extremely proud that on his mother’s side he had Jewish relatives.”

Fellner, an experienced travel writer and public speaker who has visited more than 120 countries and had more than 100 articles published in newspapers and magazines around the world, will share more of his research findings on Thursday, Feb. 10, during a presentation, “The King Was a Mensch: Tracing Elvis Presley’s Jewish Roots,” through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University for ages 50+. The class will be held over Zoom from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Cost is $14 plus a one-time, per-semester membership fee of $20. To register, visit lifelonglearning.asu.edu.

“I hope to continue speaking on the subject and furthering my research – it’s been such a fascinating journey,” shares Fellner. “I was never a huge Elvis fan growing up, but since I’ve started researching his life and his Jewish connection, I’ve become a big fan. I sense – despite his well-documented problems – Elvis was truly a mensch in so many ways.”

This article was originally posted on Jewish News.

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