Daily Mail

Elvis, a nice Jewish boy

- QUESTION Was Elvis Presley Jewish? Compiled by Charles Legge

ORTHODOX Judaism practises matrilinea­l descent: if your birth mother was Jewish then you are, too. Under this rule, Elvis was Jewish.

Genealogis­ts have confirmed the singer’s maternal great-great-grandmothe­r Nancy Burdine was a Jewish woman who was born in Mississipp­i in 1826 and died in 1887.

her family had moved to the U.S. from what is now Lithuania around the time of the American revolution.

Burdine’s great-granddaugh­ter Gladys Love Smith married Vernon Presley in 1933 and gave birth to Elvis in tupelo, Mississipp­i, in 1935.

there is compelling proof that Elvis acknowledg­ed his mother’s Jewish heritage. In 2018, her original gravestone was taken out of storage where it had been placed by Vernon to deter thieves. It was put on display in Graceland.

designed by Elvis, it had a Star of david at the top left-hand corner and a cross at the top right.

the Presleys once lived in an apartment under the family of rabbi Alfred Fruchter of the Memphis hebrew Academy. Elvis was their Shabbos goy, who performs the household tasks ( melakha) for observant Jews that are forbidden by orthodox law ( halakha) on the Sabbath.

the rabbi’s son harold has said his parents ‘never had even an inkling’ that Elvis had Jewish roots and would not have employed him if they had known.

Elvis was a practising Christian and recorded three gospel albums. however, he remained open to other religions.

In the 1970s, he wore several religious symbols, including a cross, Star of david, Egyptian ankh and crescent moon and star to represent Islam. When asked why he wore them all, Elvis replied: ‘I don’t want to miss heaven on a technicali­ty.’

Justine Brookshaw, London E10.

QUESTION Is the expression know your onions a reference to the grammarian Charles Talbut Onions?

THE expression to know your onions means to be very knowledgea­ble or experience­d. however erudite a lexicograp­her C. t. Onions was, he certainly wasn’t the source of the saying. the phrase began life in the U.S.

Onions was born in Birmingham and was a lifelong Oxford academic. the tireless fourth editor of the Oxford English dictionary was not a household name in Britain, never mind the U.S.

A poem in the February 1908 issue of the Postal record, a U.S. journal of the National Associatio­n of Letter Carriers, uses the onions expression when referring to Billy, an experience­d post horse:

But, never mind; Billy knows his onions,

He is not troubled with corns or bunions.

He travels along at a good, fair gait;

Unless the roads are bad, he is never late.

The first human example was recorded in the University tongue, a short story by Altha Leah Bass, in the March 1922 issue of harper’s magazine.

When first-year student ruth returns home from college, her mother asks if she has a good English teacher. She replies: ‘Mr roberts knows his onions, all right.’ Later, ruth’s father says that parents, like students, can ‘learn their onions’.

There is long precedence for this type of phrase: ‘he knows his flock’ (1621), ‘he knows his catechism’ (1723), ‘he knows his business’ (1744), ‘she knows her letters’ (1799) and ‘they know their trade’ (1800).

Early 20th-century U.S. journalism was fond of comical allusions. Substituti­ng a vegetable for an occupation was a typical device. Other examples of foods starting with a vowel were used to describe excellence — to know your oats, oil, apples, eggs — but onions won out.

Something excellent was also often described in terms of an animal’s anatomy: the ant’s pants, the sardine’s whiskers and the bee’s knees.

Tina Smart, Cambridge.

QUESTION Apart from the front bench, is there a protocol as to where an MP sits in the House of Commons?

SEATING positions in the Commons are governed by convention, not protocol.

If a back bencher chooses to sit on the front bench, there is no sanction their colleagues could enforce.

the governing party or parties sit to the right of the Speaker, while opposition parties take the benches to the left.

Ministers sit on the front bench with the Chief Whip next to the gangway. Parliament­ary Private Secretarie­s perch behind their minister.

Opposition spokesmen use the front bench to the Speaker’s left. Minority or smaller parties sit on the benches below the gangway on the left.

A. S. Choudhry, Dukinfield, Cheshire.

QUESTION Who invented the shower?

FURTHER to the earlier answer, in November 1985, as an NCB mining surveyor, I was sent to the newly closed Markham Colliery, Gwent, to measure the depth of two mine shafts being filled in.

A few of the employees were left to help in the closure and making safe of the colliery, including Clive Seabourne, superinten­dent of the pithead baths, which were actually rows of showers.

Built in 1936, these were used by 2,500 men. At the time, this was innovative as before this the miners went home dirty and washed in a tin bath in front of a fire in their kitchen or living room.

Clive told me that when the showers were first opened, the first shift of men up from the pit took off their dirty clothes and sat on the floor under the showers to wash, as if they were in their own tin baths. they had to be informed they should stand under the water and let it wash over them.

I found it highly amusing to picture hundreds of men sitting in rows washing each other’s backs!

Lyn Pask, Blackwood, Gwent.

■ IS THERE a question to which you want to know the answer? Or do you know the answer to a question here? Write to: Charles Legge, Answers To Correspond­ents, Daily Mail, 9 Derry Street, London W8 5HY; or email charles.legge@dailymail.co.uk. A selection is published, but we’re unable to enter into individual correspond­ence.

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Roots: The King had Jewish ancestors
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