Though speculation has brewed for decades over Elvis Presley’s possible Jewish identity, a new book by his stepbrother reveals the star’s deep Christian faith.
Billy Stanley said the King of Rock would silently pray before every concert, the Observer reported Saturday, citing an interview given by the author of “The Faith of Elvis.”
“When we saw him bow his head, then we knew,” Stanley said. “It was probably about 15 seconds long.”
Stanley said he once asked Elvis why he was praying and the singer explained: “It kind of settles my nerves but also I want God to help bless this concert, so make it a good one.”
“He always turned to God whenever he needed help,” Stanley recalled.
He described Elvis as a Sunday schoolteacher to him and his brothers, but said that the superstar never went with them to church as he was concerned he would draw too much attention.
After the death of Elvis’s mother, Gladys, his father, Vernon, married Dee who already had three sons — Billy, Ricky and David — who all moved into Graceland in 1960.
Elvis was especially close to his mother, who died of heart failure in 1958 at the age of 46.
Gladys’s tombstone reignited talk of Elvis’s Jewish identity when it was put on display at Graceland after being hidden in storage for decades. Though Gladys was initially buried in a public Memphis cemetery, as her son was later, both of their remains were moved to the Graceland estate following an attempt to steal Elvis’s body. Gladys’s headstone was put away but then taken out against in 2018.
The stone, designed by Elvis himself, features a cross in one corner — and a Jewish Star of David in the other. It sits in Graceland’s Meditation Garden, just outside the mansion and a few feet from Elvis’s own grave. An accompanying sign proclaims “Gladys’ Jewish heritage.”
Since Judaism is matrilineal, if Gladys was Jewish, so was Elvis.
Elvis’s 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.
Angie Marchese, Graceland’s vice president of archives and exhibits, said last year in an interview that “the Jewish faith gave [Elvis] comfort when he was seeking answers” to help him deal with her [Gladys’s] passing”
There is wider evidence than the symbol on the headstone of Elvis’ identification with Judaism. He gave generously over the years to a variety of Jewish organizations, including the Memphis Jewish Community Center, a donation honored 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,” which means life.
The chai necklace is kept in a cabinet at Graceland next to the keys to the singer’s famed 1955 pink Cadillac. Never one to be accused of subtlety, Elvis had the necklace designed with 17 diamonds. He purchased the jewelry in 1976, one year before he died.
“He would often make a joke, ‘I don’t want to get left out of heaven on a technicality,’” Marchese said at the time. “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.”
His own gravestone is headed by a simple cross, however.