Joe Kraus

The Elvis Presley Bar Mitvah Concert: Reflections on the Release of the 20th Anniversary 3-DVD Set

It’s hard to tell whether this new release of the 1990 Elvis Presley Bar Mitzvah Concert will reshape our enduring image of Elvis’s career, but the producers of the deluxe 3-DVD set have tried their best to do just that. They know they can’t compete with the Elvis of the 1950s and early 1960s, but they seem to think the older Elvis, in his 1980s “Jewish” period, deserves as much attention as the middle-aged Elvis of the first comeback and the Vegas stage shows. If the four-plus hours of music and the additional hour of special features don’t persuade you to take their idea seriously, the package is still worth it for the bizarre fusion of network TV, clashing musical styles, and hokum Yiddishkeit that traces American Jewry’s sense of itself over the last generation.

From where we sit today, Elvis’s Jewishness seems a clear part of his identity, but he downplayed it for most of his early career. He had a Jewish great-grandmother, of course; he was raised by a mother who drew on her Jewish heritage enough to give him the middle name “Aaron” and to request a magen David for her headstone; and he had his own penchant for a bold chai medallion that he wore as a necklace throughout the 1970s. Still, he was almost universally regarded as Christian until his middle 40s, mostly because of his success in Gospel and his association with a number of churches. That began to change in 1977 after his near fatal drug overdose. (The liner notes report that he would almost certainly have died on August 16 that year if paramedics hadn’t fortuitously been within a quarter mile of Graceland when the 911 call arrived.) Embracing his Jewish heritage as one part of his recovery from addiction—it wasn’t until 1985 that he released the David Geffen-produced O Shechina with its hit single, “Gently Queen Esther”—he came to decide that he wanted to be bar mitzvah 13 years after his “death and rebirth.”

It isn’t clear who came up with the idea of doing the ceremony as a concert live from Graceland, or how the idea morphed from an Elvis performance into a concert in his honor, with musicians performing for, and only occasionally with him. And it isn’t clear whether he went through a private, “authentic” bar mitzvah in a synagogue. In some of the bonus interviews, Geffen contradicts the reports of Priscilla Presley—who seems amused and horrified at the prospect of the concert’s re-release. Wherever it began, though, the idea caught hold and one after another musician signed on to be part of it. The usual suspects came first: Barbra Streisand—whose duet with Presley on “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is surprisingly successful—and Paul Simon, doing “Graceland,” of course. Bob Dylan, alone on guitar, sings the early Presley song, “I Want to Play House with You” and then “Man Gave Names to All the Elvises,” in an ironic tribute derived from the best of his own “born again” period.

The concert grew from event to cultural landmark, however, as various musicians whether for commercial opportunity or as a result of their own private spiritual awakenings – committed to perform. Billy Joel “came out” as a Jew just weeks before the actual concert; there’s an excerpt of his interview with Barbara Walters where, according to the notes, he publicly acknowledged he was Jewish for the first time. “I haven’t always felt part of the tribe,” he says, “but you don’t choose it; it chooses you.” And, for his part in the concert itself, performing via satellite from Los Angeles, he does a credible medley of “Only the Good Die Young” into “Blue Suede Shoes.” His introduction to it, “This is for you, Elvis” and then, his voice cracking, “and for you, Zayde,” comes across as heartfelt.

The concert exists in popular memory differently from the way the new release captures it. “Today I am a man, uh-huh” – the catch phrase that late night talk show hosts used to mock the event for months after it aired – wasn’t a part of the actual concert. Instead, as the extras make clear, it was the tag-line for one of the promos that NBC ran in commercial breaks in the weeks leading up to the original broadcast. Yes, the whole event is bizarre by today’s standards, but no more so than, say, the Christmas television specials hosted by the Jewish Mel Tormé a generation before that.

The strangest part of watching the first two DVDs straight through is seeing the bizarre juxtapositions of styles and sounds. Twenty years later, you get the sense that the build-up to the concert suddenly opened an arena for an unprecedented range of high-profile performers to stake their claims as having been Jewish all along. Watching it now, it’s as if they felt that asserting a Jewish identity would let them remain counter-cultural while figuratively “coming home.” For all of them, Judaism, or their performance of it onstage that night, meant a way to be American on their own terms rather than as sellouts, and, with Elvis “in the building,” to retain a rock-and-roll authenticity.

You have, for instance, jam band progenitors Jorma Kaukonen and Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane, Mickey Hart from The Grateful, Dave Grisman, Bob Brozman, Rob Wasserman, Mike Bloomfield, and Al Kooper performing as JewJam. You also have the full J. Geils band with Peter Wolf playfully announcing that the band was changing its name to the Jew Geils Band. (Incidentally, the virtuoso highlight of the evening comes in the middle of “Centerfold” when Magic Dick does a two-minute harmonica break on “Hava Nagila.”)

One of the cornier, but almost predictable instances comes when Arlo Guthrie, pulling together what he called a Jewtenanny, gathers Mickey Raphael (best known as Willie Nelson’s harmonica player), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel, Kinky Friedman, and Peter Yarrow to do a countrified, extra-chorused version of “Jailhouse Rock.” As soon as he gets on stage, he calls to Dylan, “Come on up, Bobby. This is you, too.” (Or does he say, “This is Jew, too”? It’s hard to tell.) Toward the end, Arlo starts up again, sing-song explaining, “If Yiddish is your mother tongue, then you know that goy is just another word for the people, for the folk. So let’s have some old friends, some good old goys, come join us in making some folk music for Elvis.” With that, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Bonnie Raitt come out, guitars in hand, to join in. Arlo wraps up the number by putting on a yarmulke with a miniature cowboy hat on top.

In perhaps the most bizarre vein, the extras DVD has a few tantalizing clips from a concert that CBGBs promoted just two weeks later. Featuring Lou Reed and Marc Ribot, John Zorn, the Ramones, and Yo La Tengo, that alternative concert didn’t claim to be part of the Elvis Bar Mitzvah celebration. Still, with an almost entirely Jewish lineup—and taking place that close to the big day—it was either an ironic tribute or some unconscious obedience to the same zeitgeist.

But the heart of the evening is clearly the embrace of Elvis as Jewish himself. You get a sense of a particular landsmen pride from one participant after another, as he or she says somehow, ‘Hey check it out—me and Elvis—we’re Jews.’ My own vote for the funniest line of the night goes to Billy Crystal, who more or less emcees (or, as he says a couple of times, “rabbis”) the event, bantering between acts and directing the studio audience to the monitors for the different remote broadcasts. Introducing Neil Diamond, he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Jewish Elvis.” [pause] “Now that one [nickname] is gonna have to go."

Beyond identity politics, the concert suggests there’s a lot at stake in claiming Elvis as Jewish. The legend holds that it’s Elvis who first found a way to be white and sound black and, true as that is, it obscures one way in which his music was always partly “Jewish” from the start. Of the 18 number one hits that he recorded before his second comeback, 12 were by Jewish composers; since Elvis, halachically Jewish himself, had co-writing credits on three others, that left only two by African-Americans and only one by a non-black, non-Jewish writer. None of that is to suggest that Elvis was derivative of other musicians. Rather, it reminds us that, for most of the 20th Century, Jewish artists took a disproportionate role in exploring the space between black and white culture. As it was in jazz, so it was in rock. Asserting that Elvis was Jewish—true enough according to his family tree—is one thing; asserting that there was something Jewish in the way he intuited and synthesized the best of America—that there is something intrinsically Jewish about rock and roll itself—is another, more ambitious claim.

What’s evident throughout the concert in its restored form is that one performer after another—almost always unconsciously—explores that possibility. The bizarre mixture of styles would be incoherent if not for the implicit, shared wish that each one belongs on that stage both as a rocker and as a Jew. For all of the different costumes and hairstyles, each is living the same story for that one evening. They all began in idiosyncratic, musical rebellion and, far-flung as that rebellion took them, we see them all finding themselves converging around Elvis, the pioneer not just musically but also crypto-Jewishly. In that respect, Elvis’s bar mitzvah wasn’t merely his own but rather almost a national bar mitzvah, an affirmation that Jews stand at the heart of American culture and a three-ring-circus reminder that America is more than a little bit Jewish.

The concert’s release today, with Elvis dead almost seven years, invites nostalgia for that certainty. There are plenty of rock acts announcing their Jewishness in their music—think of Matisyahu, Phish, Balkan Beat Box, and even Madonna—but it’s no longer so innocent or exuberant a statement. Twenty years ago, American support for Israel was unanimous. Today, as growing numbers weary over a fourth generation of Middle-eastern conflict, increasingly powerful voices question that support. Jews remain as central a part of American pop culture as ever, but few have emulated Elvis and the Bar Mitzvah Concert performers in proclaiming their Jewishness. Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Louis-Dreyfus—to take just two celebrities with rabbinic ancestors – talk only cagily about their parents and grandparents. The internet keeps alive a marginalized discussion of who’s Jewish and who isn’t—consider Jewhoo, Jewornotjew, Jewsrock.org and countless blogs on the matter—but being outed on Wikipedia isn’t the same as standing up to be counted.

We live in an era when, for the first time, Jews have a realistic shot at the Presidency, when, if we choose, we can abandon our Jewishness without prejudice from America at large and without widespread Jewish opprobrium. We are, all of us, Jews by choice, moreso than at any time in history. The Bar Mitzvah Concert took place only 20 years ago—barely a generation—but seeing it again, restored and annotated as this deluxe edition is, brings home forcefully both how fortunate we are and how many new challenges present themselves. The news of 1990—the news that we have grounds to celebrate the broad, parallel possibilities of American and Jewish life—is old news, old enough that it barely excites. Schmaltzy as it is to see Elvis holding court, it leaves us to ask what defines our community today. We’ve known before what it was like to have and then lose a Jewish king; the question is how we will respond to it in this, our own moment.