At the Elvis Diner, 30 years later, they still love him tender

Ten would-be Kings gather at the only place in Israel they can be understood - the Elvis Diner, just off the J'lem-Tel Aviv highway at Neveh Ilan.

Israeli elvis 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Israeli elvis 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Ten would-be Kings, two of them women, gathered Thursday afternoon at perhaps the only place in Israel they could be completely understood - the Elvis Diner, just off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway at Neveh Ilan. And in their finest Duck's Ass haircuts, tight bell-bottoms and blue-suede shoes, belting out "Hound Dog" and oozing "Can't Help Falling in Love" over the karaoke - from a notebook in which the English lyrics had been transcribed into phonetic Hebrew - they marked 30 years since Elvis checked out of the Heartbreak Hotel for good. Or rather, nine of them did. Dvir Weidenbaum had the hair and the threads down pat, but he eschewed the crooning and the hip-synching. "He dances and sings at home, but here he is too shy to do all that," said his girlfriend Natasha, speaking up for the coy wannabe. The workers at the adjacent gas station and businesses had seen it all before - over and over and over again. "Pundak Elvis," the closest thing Israel has to Graceland, plays Presley and nothing but Presley every day of the week. And followers stop by in larger numbers on every birthday (January 8, 1935) and deathday (August 16, 1977). The songs have long since become the soundtrack to their lives. "Actually, it's a good music," said Suliman, who helps at the nearby kiosk. "I don't understand a word of it but I don't mind listening to this all day long." Inside the diner, Tiki Rokah, 57 from Netanya, was recalling the beginning of her long-distance romance. "It all started for me when I was 13. I used to steal my brother's Elvis records and he used to hit me for doing it, but I didn't care," she said wistfully. "I fell in love with Elvis back than because of his voice, charisma and look. And I stayed a devotee because he also was a good, generous and modest man who helped people and didn't let the glamorous life change him." Rokah evidently just can't help believing. The local shrine actually predates Elvis's unglamorous demise. Uri Yoeli, who opened it as The Mounts' Diner, changed the name in 1976, and manages it still, together with his four children and his brother Amnon. "I learned about Elvis at the age of 16, when my girlfriend gave me a picture of him and told me he was a singer, too. I went to the record store and asked them about this Elvis guy, and they didn't know who I was talking about. But they ordered the record from a store in Tel Aviv." Years later Yoeli hung a few Elvis snaps in his diner and played the odd Elvis song, but only got the idea to surrender when he realized the fans were referring to the joint as "the place with Elvis's pictures... They encouraged us to play only Elvis songs, they wanted more pictures on the walls and they made it their place of gathering." Few take the homage more seriously than Yitzik Twigi, 38, a thin, tall lookalike who wasn't making do with just the one costume; he was switching every 15 minutes. "At the age of nine, when I watched Fun in Acapulco [1963, the 13th Elvis flick], my life changed," gushed Twigi. "I was electrified. I went home and changed my hairstyle and clothes. I started to dance and imitate him. He became my entire life." Until that fateful day, indeed, Twigi had been an unremarkable bus driver from Petah Tikva. He switched to a career playing Elvis at hotel shows, bar mitzvas and worldwide competitions. "I don't want to brag," he bragged, "but I see myself as the ultimate Israeli Elvis." And Twigi's sights are now set further: "I know I'll make it in the US, too," he confided. Unlike most of his fellow Elvises, developing a bit of a spread as the years go by (just like the King did), Twigi's sacrifices for his art include a strict low-fat diet, so that the clothes look right. "And I don't go anywhere without my comb, just like Elvis," he signs off dramatically. "If I forget it, I simply lose my balance."