What Jewish History Forgot: Legendary World Changers’ Surprising Jewish Roots

by Marnie Macauley February 26, 2018


was-alexander-hamilton-jewishWe all know Elvis Presley as the southern boy who became the King of rock and roll as well as a cultural icon. But did you know that from an early age the King was heavily influenced musically by a rabbi, that many of his songwriting teams were Jewish, and more, there has been serious speculation that Elvis himself, was “technically” a Jew? Did you know the king of jazz, Louis Armstrong, considered a Jewish family his own and his inspiration, or that founding father and first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, attended a Jewish school?  A Jewish pirate with a mission? The legendary Jean Lafitte had his reasons. How about that famous gambler and gunfighter Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery (undercover?) Earp, married to Jewess Josephine “Josie” Marcus in 1880, had his ashes laid to rest in the Marcus family plot at the Little Hills of Eternity Jewish cemetery, in Colma, California, which was founded by Senator and presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater’s Jewish grandfather, Michael Goldwater!

Let’s look.

Elvis: The Hip-Iest Jewish King?

When Elvis Presley was a teen living on Alabama Street in Memphis, his family lived below Orthodox Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, the leader of Temple Beth El Emeth. The Rabbi and his wife, the rebbitzen, owned something the Presley’s lacked: a phonograph. According to Tim Boxer’s “Jewish Celebrity Anecdotes,” young Elvis, while washing his $50 1942 Lincoln Zephyr coupe, would hear the rabbi’s cantorial records of artists such as Shlomo Koussevitsky and Moishe Oysher. In 1954, Elvis asked to borrow the rabbi’s record player. He had recorded a song called “I Love You, Mama.” During his frequent visits with Rabbi Fruchter he celebrated Shabbos with the family, and wore a yarmulke in their home. Reportedly, he had a Star of David engraved on his mother’s tombstone and was generous in his contributions to Jewish causes. He wore a “chai” (the Hebrew letters chai and yud, symbolizing life), which, according to some accounts, he was buried with. Years later, Rabbi Fruchter said when Elvis, as a young man, played his song, it had a strangely rhythmic sound. Could it be the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was influenced by liturgical music? More, many of his early hits, including “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” were written by the Jewish duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Sadly, they never composed “All Farmisht Up.” He continued to use a number of Jewish songwriters.

But wait … it may go further.

It’s a little-known fact that Elvis Presley—the most Christian icon of American pop culture—may have been Halachically Jewish. According to his biographer, Elaine Dundy, Elvis’s Jewish connection is through his maternal great-great-grandmother, Nancy Tackett, a Jewess. In the book “Shmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots,” Jonathan Goldstein, with the help of a Canadian Hasidic Jewish Elvis impersonator, Dan Hartel (whose stage name has been Schmelvis) claims to have traced Elvis’s Jewish roots all the way to Israel.

Jewish? Not Jewish? One thing we DO know. The King was aware of and admired his Jewish roots.


Did you know that jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, who put the “Hello” in “Dolly,” was heavily influenced by a Jewish family named Karnofksy? The King of cornet and trumpet (with voice and scat to match) was born on August 4, 1901 in New Orleans to an “absent” father and a prostitute. Enter the Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. He worked for the Karnofskys in their junk biz. They became his surrogate family, offering bed, board, love and spiritual nourishment. They also gave him his first instrument, which sent him soaring as a jazz innovator and worldwide ambassador for humanity. He later wrote a memoir of this relationship, “Louis Armstrong and the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907,” saying, “I was only seven years old, but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family.” From them, he wrote he learned “how to live—real life and determination.” Did you know that Louis Armstrong not only spoke Yiddish, but wore a Star of David for the rest of his life?

Alexander Hamilton Attended Cheder?

Our first secretary of the Treasury was not a practicing Jew. But his mother, Rachel Fawcett Levine, probably was or converted to Judaism when she married her first husband at age 16 (in the 1750s), one John Michael Levine, a Danish Jew living in the West Indies. Alexander Hamilton’s biological father, James Hamilton, was a non-Jewish Scotsman. But young Alexander, born in the West Indies in 1757 (or 1755), attended a Jewish school, because as Rachel had never divorced her first husband, he was considered illegitimate in the eyes of the Church.

Is This A Job For A “Jewish” Boy?
Jean Lafitte

The legendary French -American pirate, Jean Lafitte, who sailed the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century, claimed Jewish ancestry through his grandparents in a journal entry. As for his “career” choice, he had his reasons. A freethinker, buccaneer, alchemist, but loyal family man, he was greatly influenced by his bubbe, Zora Nadrimal, who raised him. According to his diary, he was born in Port-Au-Prince in 1782. His mother, Maria Zora Nadrimal, died soon after, and the young Jean was raised by his Jewish grandmother, Zora. His grandfather, Abhorad Nadrimal, was jailed, tortured and died in prison in Spain. Jean was raised on stories of his suffering, and thus he developed a hatred of all things Spanish. Lafitte described his grandmother as also training him in the habits necessary to the development of a strong personality, preparing him to face the vicissitudes of life with a firm and determined will and capability of ignoring all obstacles that would impede the development of his mind.

The Debate Is On

Here’s a shocker. At a provocative 2011 exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art titled “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” curator Lloyd DeWitt suggested that the same model posed for each painting – and that the model was Jewish! Recently, the relationship between the Master and Jews (including the possibility of the artist as crypto-Jewish) has become food for trendy debate. Those who agree with DeWitt about the Jewish “Jesus” model, while without evidence, “go” circumstantial. In an intriguing 1656 audit of Rembrandt’s house one design clearly came from life (read: he used a live model.) The artist, at the time, was likely to have used a model with similar Semitic characteristics to paint the Jewish Jesus. Rembrandt lived in a Jewish neighborhood. He had a strong relationship with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. In at least three of his paintings the subjects were, in fact, Jewish. In “Jewish Art: A Modern History,” Larry Silver and coauthor Samantha Baskind chronicle how Rembrandt served as a Jewish role model for other artists. It has even been suggested that Rembrandt may have been a crypto-Jew. Was he, did he? Fervent art historians disagree, but the debate still fascinates.

Wyatt Earp Spends Eternity In A Jewish Cemetery – Founded By Barry Goldwater’s Grandpa

The gambler and gunfighter of OK Corral fame was “believed” to be married to his beloved Jewess – and his ashes are spending eternity in a Jewish cemetery. Earp met the young and exciting Josephine “Josie” Marcus in 1880. Together, for over 40 years, they lived an adventure, going from boom town to boom town, investing in mines, real estate, entertainment establishments and oil wells. While working as a sports writer and Western film consultant in Los Angeles (where he helped promote much of the Earp myth), he died of liver failure in 1929. His ashes were buried in the Marcus family plot at Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, California. Josie was laid beside him in 1944.

The plot gets JEW-cier! The late presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater’s pop and zayde, originally Polish were religious Jews! The Senator’s grandfather, Michael Goldwater, was very active in Jewish affairs on the western frontier. In California, he was a VIP in three Jewish congregations. In San Francisco, he was chairman of the committee that founded Hills of Eternity Cemetery at Colma, California (the very same place where Earp and his Jewish wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus were buried). His grandpa also headed the first Hebrew Benevolent Society and chaired the first Zionist meeting in San Francisco in 1898, where Barry Goldwater’s father, Baron, was Bar Mitzvahed.

P.S. While Earp himself wasn’t Jewish, he did once accidentally shoot himself! Hmmmmm.


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