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January / february 2006:

Blue Suede Jews
Memphis has Graceland. Vegas has impersonators. And Israel -- yes, Israel -- has the Elvis Inn, a bizarre desert Mecca for Middle East Elvis enthusiasts. It's the Holy Land, people, and the King has risen.

Story and Photographs by Dave Bender

It's not every day you run into Elvis Presley in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda open-air market.

Now, it's not as if I'm some kind of delusional Elvis freak here in the holy city, waving a hand-scrawled sign drawn in black magic markers, babbling on about Mideast war and peace in one breath and Elvis and aliens in the next, but, there I was: noon on Friday and traipsing through the market's bustling main open avenue doing my weekly round of pre-Sabbath shopping when I saw Elvis.

"Shlepping in Memphis," lets call it, grappling with two fistfuls of flimsy plastic bags stretched thin with sweet challahs, peppery Jerusalem kugel, savory hummus and schug, along with the rest of the capital's sweaty humanity eddying around for bargains and baklava, I was making my way home when it happened.

Not ten feet away from a pair of border police officers manning the rickety security portico at the bustling Jaffa Road entrance, as in a vision like so many others — with said visionaries usually gently carted away to the capital's Kfar Shaul mental health facility, unless otherwise elected to the Knesset — there he stood.

At first glance, it was the "Big E" in the flesh. Late Vegas-period muttonchops framing Ray-Bans? Check. Thigh-length black leather jacket covering a massive Chai bling-bling on his hairy chest? Check. Tight black jewel-sequined pants over too-cool pointy-toed boots? Check. And a slinky Priscilla-look-alike babe draped on his arm, no less? Double check.

And we even frequent the same cut-rate wine shop. Who knew?

Now, as a veteran press and radio working-stiff journalist, I've often told audiences that the truth in this region regularly outstrips fiction and that if you tried to make a living writing Israel's daily reality as fable you'd go broke pronto since, well, who the hell would believe such outlandish malarkey?

So, actually, I'll cop: it was Israel's most renowned Elvis impersonator, 47-year-old Gilles (Gil) Elmalih, an international and local Elvis imitation competition winner, along with his wife Liz, 34, a songstress in her own right, who sings backup vocals to the King in performances.

Elmalih was born in France and made aliyah to Israel at age three, growing up in the southern Red Sea port city of Eilat. Maybe the proximity of all those hotels with the cheesy lounge acts had an effect on him. He began his original career as a professional sound man after completing his Israel Defense Forces stint as a radar operator in the Navy, serving aboard a missile boat guarding the straits of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Radar waves, ocean waves, sound waves — same difference, right?

The clutch of Holy Land Elvis wannabes have their own Internet message board and Israeli Elvis fan club. But when those fans want to get together in literal and not virtual reality, Israelis out for a good meal and some King Creole, frequent a genuine roadside café near Jerusalem where Elvis' memory lives on in a Cinemascope Technicolor homage by the Yoeli family to the King: The Elvis Inn. And the food ain't bad, either, says diners. Dishes on the menu include the "All Shook Up" breakfast featuring "shakshouka" — an Israeli concoction made with scrambled eggs, tomato sauce and spices, as well as aptly named "Tupelo Kid" meals for the, well, kids.

Set a bit off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, near the Kibbutz Neveh Ilan Guest House, is the shrine of shlock, the ultra in kitsch: the Elvis Inn gas station, restaurant, bar and grill and tourist trap, run by owners and brothers Amnon and Uri, along with Uri's son, Amir, and several staffers.

While it's certainly not Graceland, the neo-50s and 60s décor does get you in the mood, with a 16-foot-high golden statue of Elvis in the parking lot alongside the entrance, and a second even larger one nearby, with one arm raised, seemingly waving towards Jerusalem.

There are more than 1,000 pictures, posters, and postcards covering nearly every flat surface, sent by fans and like-minded Elvis lovers worldwide. There are also four life-sized Elvis statues scattered around the premises in various poses, sitting at a table, strumming a guitar, and, in general watching over the place.

Inside, artist Uri Ard painted and constructed the show stopping Sistine Chapel-esque ceiling a decade ago, featuring illustrated highlights of Elvis' life and times dramatically outlined in glowing orange neon.

Elvis certainly brings different people together: on the afternoon I visited, the Inn was hosting 24 eighth-graders and staff of Atlanta's Greenfield Hebrew Academy. Meanwhile, a 130-member-strong Christian pilgrimage group from London sat primly at the booths and tables inside, but still gawked at the memorabilia-studded décor. Over in the corner booth overlooking the verdant Judean hills, five rowdy Israeli men and women quaffed beers over a long lunch, laughing and digging the scene.

The Elvis Inn started, "about 30 years ago, when our family took over this location, which was pretty run down," Yoeli says. "Since my brother and I were Elvis fans, we brought over a few pictures from our house and hung them up. Soon tourists started coming around and were impressed, and we kept finding pictures of Elvis. Tourists — especially from the United States — also sent us pictures and articles," he recalls, and says that at one stage they began holding ceremonies on Elvis' birthday, January 8, 1935, and anniversary of his death, August 16, 1977 at age 42.

The Inn has kept on through war and peace, tourists and terrorism, and innumerable impersonators ever since. The place has slowly grown, along with the ebb and flow of the tourist buses unloading wide-eyed visitors for a photo-op and snack.

But when they hold the memorial service, it's not a staid affair. "Film crews from around the world show up," according to Yoeli, with reporters from "China, Japan, the U.S. and Europe … and [Israel Radio's] Reshet Gimmel Network provides a live feed throughout the day."

And then it's time for the squad of Elvis impersonators to don the sequined cape, pomade the 'do, and belt out the hits — albeit with varying degrees of success. "There's a big party here then," he says.

"Over the years, we've collected thousands of pictures and articles; gathered an entire library of books about Elvis, including many 'proving' that Elvis is still alive. It's like a cult," Yoeli says, slowly shaking his head from side to side.

"We're a bit more realistic," he says with a smile, when asked where the Elvis Inn stands on the matter of Elvis' presumed whereabouts. "But his music, spirit, and the impact he had on world music certainly live on."

Recalling a trip to Graceland two years ago, Yoeli notes that the Elvis estate attempted to open a string of diners in the States similar to the Elvis Inn, but apparently closed them after a brief period, "possibly for economic reasons."

"We were in communication with Priscilla [Presley], who was supposed to come for the ceremony, but cancelled out, apparently due to the intifada," Yoeli surmises. Other guests were Elvis' performance costume seamstress, as well as the man whose claim to fame was announcing, "Elvis has left the building" as concerts concluded.

Another group the intifada doesn't faze, and arrives regularly, is a contingent of U.S. Marines. Yoeli says the restaurant has an informal agreement with the American authorities that whenever one of the Navy destroyers docks at Haifa, the crew visits the Inn. "When they arrive, it's one big party. They see Elvis, feel at home, and we turn up the volume — some get up and dance," Yoeli says.

And what of the future of the Elvis Inn? "We were contacted by individuals in England and in Greece, who had visited here, and were interested in franchises, and as a matter of fact, we're in serious negotiations with another British individual — also a great Elvis fan — who already has a few entertainment spots in London and wants to copy what we have here," says Yoeli.

"This is something special that you could only find in Israel," Amir says. "I suppose we are America's little sister, but we also have our own culture: hummus, grilled meats — but also American food. We have it all: Elvis and the Holy Land, and that's something very special."

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