Book Review

Elvis-Jewish connection

Book Review: The Jewish World of Elvis Presley

TITLE: The Jewish World of Elvis Presley

AUTHOR: Roselle Kline Chartock

ISBN: 979-8-6866-0444-5

PUBLISHER: McKinstry Place Publishers, November 24, 2020

Elvis Presley and Jews. Whatever is the connection? Lots, according to author Roselle Kline Chartock in her book The Jewish World of Elvis Presley. OK, you may say, there were many Jews in Hollywood and in the rock and roll world. That’s true, but his connection actually began long before that. Elvis developed close relationships with Jewish people while he was growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, the Deep South where Jews were not always welcome in the 1950s.

Consider these little-known facts in Chartock’s book:

  • At one time, a Rabbi Fruchter and his family lived upstairs from the Presley family for over a year. Elvis was in high school then. Jeannette Fruchter, the rabbi’s wife, described the Presley’s as “very poor but very refined” (p.16). She and Elvis’ mother were as close as sisters. When the Presley’s couldn’t pay their utility bills, Jeanette would loan Gladys money and she always paid it back. Once a month the Fruchter’s had the Presley’s over for their Friday night Sabbath meal. Elvis particularly loved the challah, the matzoh ball soup, and the tzimmes. During those meals, Elvis would wear a yarmulke. He also was the family’s Sabbath helper, turning on lights or making phone calls for them as needed. It was customary to tip the Sabbath helper, but Elvis would never accept a tip, telling them “It was his pleasure” (p.18).
  • Bernard Lansky, whose family were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, owned the Lansky Brothers clothing store in Memphis.  They dressed many of the local Black entertainers. The story goes that Elvis, who worked as an usher at the Loew’s State Theater nearby, would stand in front of the Lansky Brothers store and stare at the clothes in the window. One day Bernard invited the teenage Elvis into the store and asked if he would like to try on one of the outfits. “No, sir. I ain’t got nothin’. But when I do, when I save up some money, I’m gonna come in here and buy you out.” Legend has it that Bernard answered him, “Hey, do me a favor, don’t buy me out. Just buy from me” (p. 60).  And Elvis did for the rest of his life.  When he became famous, the Lansky Brothers would advertise they were the “Clothier to the King.” Whenever anyone asked Elvis where he got his clothes, he would always reply, “I bought it at Lansky’s on Beale Street” (p. 64).
  • Hal Levitch owned a jewelry store on the same Beale Street where the Lansky Brothers had their clothing store. Levitch, who grew up poor in Memphis, was a big fundraiser for those in need. He even set up a fund to provide new shoes for students from poor families. He helped many of Elvis’ friends and possibly Elvis himself. When Elvis became famous, he bought jewelry from him, including the wedding ring he presented to Priscilla. Levitch also custom-made watches, one with a Christian cross and a Star of David on the face. It was a symbol of brotherhood and Elvis gifted this watch to his friends. They were lifelong friends, and at one point, Levitch wanted to stage an intervention with others to get Elvis to enter treatment at the Mayo Clinic when they saw him getting sick. Unfortunately, they weren’t successful.
  • Dr. Lester Hofman and his wife Sterling were close friends of Elvis. They visited him at Graceland when Elvis’ mother passed away. They were invited to the reception that Elvis made for his Memphis friends when he got married and to a special buffet when Lisa Marie Presley was born. He bought the Hofman’s Cadillacs and gifted Sterling a TLC (Tender Loving Care) necklace that he gave to women friends. When they once visited Presley at Graceland, Dr. Hofman admired his organ, so later that night, Elvis had it packed in a truck. The truck followed the Hofman’s home where the organ was installed in the dentist’s living room.

There were other Jewish people who were close to Elvis before his career launched into superstardom. And there were many in the music and movie businesses when he became famous. Even his entourage, known as the Memphis Mafia, consisted of many Jews. But I found those friends in the early years to be particularly touching. Everyone interviewed said he was polite, well-mannered, and never forgot a kindness. But Chartock’s book also contained a shocking revelation that may be true but is little known: Elvis Presley’s great great grandmother was Jewish. Nancy Burdine lived in Memphis in the 1800s. Her family came from Lithuania. She converted to Christianity when she married and had a daughter, Martha. When Martha grew up, she married and had a daughter, Octavia. Octavia married and had Gladys, Presley’s mother. If this lineage is confirmed, Elvis is Jewish by halachah (Jewish law).

As the reader can see, there are indeed many connections between Elvis Presley and Jews.

Who would’ve thought?

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Book Recommendation: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Title: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print

Author: Renni Browne and Dave King

Publisher: HarperPerennial (A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers)

ISBN: 0-06-270061-8

Pages: 240

Publication Date: March 1, 1994

A writer friend of mine suggested I read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and I am so glad I did. The book is not only helpful for editing, but it also offers a wealth of guidance during the actual writing process. Authors Renni Browne and Dave King have worked at The Editorial Department for a number of years, and they offer sound, practical, and easy to follow advice. Each chapter covers the most important aspects of story writing like showing rather than telling, paying attention to point of view, and pointers for writing dialogue. The following are a few words of advice Browne and King offers fiction writers:

  1. They write about beats in dialogue. “Beats are the little bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes—the literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as stage business” (p. 102). Beats can also include interior monologue, or a character’s inner dialogue. Beats serve three purposes: 1.) They give readers insights into a character’s personality. 2.) They add rhythm and variety to dialogue. 3.) They allow readers to form a picture of what is happening in the scene. But at the same time, Browne and King caution too many beats can interrupt a scene to the point that it loses its tension or flow.
  2. Be careful about proportion in your writing. Do not fill in every detail and leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. Example: “Joe saw the orange and white cat with the light green eyes and short whiskers run across the sixteen-foot oak tree whose leaves had fallen down this past month.”
  3. Avoid needless repetition. Example: “Sue missed the house she lived in while growing up. The house was spacious and comfortable and her parents had hosted many parties at this house. Sue thought about the house often.” The writing will not flow and interfere with the readers’ enjoyment of the story.
  4. Stay away from cliches, such as “Think outside the box” and “The pot calling the kettle black.”
  5. Avoid -ly adverbs. Strive for strong verbs in place of a weak verb with an adverb. For example, replace “Angrily she put the book on the desk” with “She slammed the book on the desk.”
  6. Do not overuse as and -ing constructions. Although they are grammatically correct, a writer should not use them in a story because, as Browne and King explain, they “…take a bit of action…and tuck it away in a dependent clause” and “they sometimes give rise to physical impossibilities” (p. 156). Examples: “As she unpacked her suitcase, she glanced at her mother from the window” or “Unpacking her suitcase, she glanced at her mother from the window.” Better: “She unpacked her suitcase and glanced at her mother from the window.”
  7. Do not overuse interior monologue to the point where it is constantly interrupting dialogue, repeating what is already mentioned in the actual dialogue, or packing them in with too much information.
  8. Use dashes (–) for interruptions and ellipsis (…) for gaps in the dialogue.
  9. This is probably the flaw fiction writers hear the most: Show, don’t tell. Instead of telling readers a man is greedy, show him paying his workers a meager wage while keeping all the profits for himself. The authors also write, “Are you describing your characters’ feelings? Have you told us they’re angry? irritated? morose? … Keep an eye out for any places where you mention an emotion outside of dialogue. Chances are you’re telling what you should show” (p. 11).
  10. Do not keep shifting the point of view. The point of view may be in the first person, it may be omniscient (not inside any of the character’s heads), or third person. When choosing third person, keep it consistent. If the writer wants to change the point of view, there has to be a scene or chapter break.
  11. When writing dialogue, be sure to use contractions (I’m, can’t, etc.) because you want to write the way people talk. You can also include sentence fragments. Avoid using complex words with many syllables unless that particular character uses them all the time. You want to write dialogue that sounds natural.

Important points to keep in mind!

The book includes a checklist and exercises at the end of the chapters. I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers as a reference book. For this fiction writer, I found it truly helpful in the writing and editing processes.

Idelle Kursman is an editor, proofreader, and SEO copywriter. She is also the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations.

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Book Review of Anxious People

Book Review: Anxious People is a Winner

This year has been heartbreaking. I lost both of my parents. Countless other people have lost loved ones. There were many job layoffs and jobs furloughed. Families and friends could not get together, even for Thanksgiving. Reading Anxious People is just what I needed. A bank robber on the verge of losing everything holds people hostage at an apartment viewing the day before the New Year. Readers learn the backstory of most of these characters, including the policemen who rescue them.

Swedish author Fredrik Backman combines insights about life, adding humor and some absurd conversations as he chronicles the hostage drama. The theme is life is a struggle and everyone carries their own pain and anxieties. We often cannot create the life we desire but should instead try to get through as best as we can while hopefully cherishing some good memories along the way. At the heart of the story is the despair we often experience when things do not go our way or we cannot save our loved ones from themselves.

We meet a father and son police officer team working on the case. The father is a widower who misses his wife, attempts to boost his son’s confidence in his police skills, and despairs that he cannot help his drug-addicted daughter. The bank robber recently experiences job loss, is in the process of getting divorced, and cannot pay the rent for an apartment. In addition, the robber’s spouse wants full custody of their children. The hostages have their stories as well.

Many of the keen observations about life come from the police officers reminiscing about their late wife and mother. She was a priest and this is just an example of what she used to tell them:

We can’t change the world, and a lot of the time we can’t even change people. No more than one bit at a time. So we do what we can to help whenever we get the chance…We save those we can. We do our best. Then we try to convince ourselves that that will just have to…be enough. So we can live with our failures without drowning” (p. 203).

The witness interviews consist of absurd conversations between the various hostages and the police officers that I found too annoying to be funny, but the dialogue and background information gave the story depth and insights. Backman builds a fascinating character with Zara, one of the hostages, in detailing her meetings with her psychologist prior to the main action.

The writing is superb, the plot is brilliantly woven, and the story is peppered with sharp observations about life.

I must be frank. This has been an all-out crappy year. But reading Anxious People reminds me we must get through these times and try to be there for each other.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations. They are for sale on Amazon and many other places.

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Book Review: The Authenticity Project

The Authenticity Project is the perfect book to read when you are forced to stay at home and need some cheering up. Needless to say, the coronavirus has put a serious damper on all of our lives.

Appearances can be deceiving. You never know what other people are going through. In this story, a random set of strangers find out about each other when they leave behind a book titled The Authenticity Project. As each person finds the book, they connect with those who had previously written about their most agonizing personal issues and add a section about their own. A pervading theme is loneliness. When the characters find each other, their relationships involve helping one another by performing incredible acts of kindness. This story could have fallen into syrupy sweet sentimentality but doesn’t for a moment.  

It begins with an elderly artist who previously had a prominent career but has now been living as a recluse for the last fifteen years. When he leaves the book behind in a cafe, the café owner finds it. The single cafe owner is in her mid-30’s and is desperate to get married and have children. She meets the artist, encouraging him to go out. He even agrees to teach art lessons in her establishment. People attend and not only learn to draw, but end up bonding with one another. The cafe owner then misplaces the book, only to be found by an alcoholic and cocaine-addict seeking to clean up and lead a better life. The book continues traveling with other characters finding it and joining the others. The events and humor keep moving the story forward.

Although I guessed the ending, The Authenticity Project gives one a renewed faith in humanity and brings the reader happy feelings at a time when we don’t have many reasons to feel joyful.

A note: When I read the brief biography about the author, Clare Pooley, I learned she is married with three kids. She worked in the advertising world for twenty years. Just when I thought she had it all, she confessed at the end of the book that she is a recovering alcoholic. It goes to show you. Appearances can be deceiving. You never know what other people are going through.

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Book Review: The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800

For history lovers, The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800 is a must read. Author Jay Winik guides readers through the major events of this pivotal global turning point. The American Revolution’s ideals of freedom and liberty were felt over much of the world. Motivated to strike a blow to England, his country’s enemy, King Louis XVI of France helped finance and support the revolution, sending troops like the famous Lafayette, At the same time, the enlightened Catherine the Great of Russia initially pursued these ideals and embraced the enlightened philosophies of Voltaire as well as prominent Russian reformers like Alexander Radishchev and Nikolay Novikov. Ironically, the revolution also inspired French radicals, who overthrew and then beheaded King Louis, resulting in France embroiled in a bloodbath of violence and anarchy.  As for Catherine, when the progressive ideals of freedom and independence threatened her authoritarian monarchy, she promptly crushed it, imprisoning Radishchev and Novikov in a major turnabout. Both Lafayette and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a statesman and national hero of Poland, fought in the American revolution but failed to achieve similar reforms in their respective countries –Lafayette was forced to flee the violence of France and Kosciuszko’s valiant attempts to free Poland from Russia’s tentacles failed.

Winik’s book is very readable, consisting not simply of dates and names. He relates the story behind the events and examines the lives of the major players. As an example, this book only heightened my respect for America’s first President, George Washington. In a time of reigning kings who ruled for life, Washington made the historic decision to step down after two presidential terms despite Americans’ plea for him to be crowned king. There were great minds at the country’s inception  –Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Adams immediately come to mind, but it was George Washington who utilized the best of their ideas and rose above their clashes in ideas and personalities, demonstrating  that this country provided a template for democracy all over the world during a critical time of turbulence and change.

My recommendation: Read, learn, and enjoy.

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