Blue suede Jews! Elvis Presley’s Jewish roots revealed
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Blue suede Jews! Elvis Presley’s Jewish roots revealed

The headstone of the iconic music legend's mother, Gladys, which has now gone on display at Graceland, features a Star of David, denoting his little-known Jewish lineage

The gravestone of Elvis’ mother Gladys
The gravestone of Elvis’ mother Gladys

The large crate sat unopened in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse for more than four decades, concealing a little-known fact about one of America’s cultural icons.

Inside was the headstone of Elvis Presley’s mother, Gladys, which had been stored in the Graceland archives along with 1.5 million other items since 1977.

And on the upper left side of the long-unseen marker – designed by Elvis himself – is a Star of David. Yes, the King of Rock and Roll had Jewish roots.

The headstone, which was taken from storage only in 2018, is now on display at the sprawling complex in Memphis where Elvis lived from 1957 until his untimely death 20 years later at the age of 42.

It sits in Graceland’s Meditation Garden, just outside the mansion and a few feet from Elvis’ own grave.

Stories of Elvis’ Jewish heritage have long been in circulation, but when it comes to a legend like Presley – whose death is not even considered settled fact in some quarters – it’s not always easy to separate fact from fiction.

With the headstone now on public display and an accompanying sign proclaiming “Gladys’ Jewish heritage”, any lingering doubts can finally be erased.

Elvis’ mother Gladys

Elvis’ maternal great-great-grandmother was a Jewish woman named Nancy Burdine.

Little is known about Burdine, but it’s believed her family immigrated to America from what is now Lithuania around the time of the American Revolution.

According to Ancestry.com, Burdine was born in Mississippi in 1826 and died in 1887. Burdine’s great-granddaughter was Gladys Love Smith, who married Vernon Presley in 1933.

Two years later, Gladys gave birth to Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi. The family moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13.

Elvis was especially close to his mother, who died of heart failure in 1958 aged 46. Initially, Elvis had her buried in a public Memphis cemetery. Her headstone was marked with a cross. But six years later, he replaced the headstone with one designed to his specifications.

The new marker featured a Star of David on one side and a cross on the other, with
“Sunshine Of Our Home” engraved in between.

Elvis Presley in the film Jailhouse Rock

There is evidence Elvis’ Jewish lineage meant more to him than just a symbol on a headstone.

He gave generously over the years to a variety of Jewish organisations, including the Memphis Jewish Community Center, a donation honoured with a plaque that hangs in Graceland today. Elvis’ personal library included several books on Judaism and Jewish history.

During the final years of his life, Elvis was frequently photographed wearing necklaces with the Star of David and the Hebrew word chai, meaning life.

He bought the chai necklace in 1976 and had it designed with 17 diamonds. It is kept in a cabinet at Graceland next to the keys to his famed 1955 pink Cadillac. 

“He would often make a joke, ‘I don’t want to get left out of heaven on a technicality,’” says Angie Marchese, Graceland’s vice president of archives and exhibits.

“So he would wear a Star of David, a chai and he would also wear a cross. He wanted to keep all his bases covered.”

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