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Exploring Elizabeth Taylor's Jewish conversion
Elizabeth Taylor in Beverly Hills, California, in 2007.
March 24th, 2011
04:56 PM ET

Exploring Elizabeth Taylor's Jewish conversion

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

In early April 1959, Time magazine reported that “the most famous and perhaps the most beautiful baby born last week was a Jewish girl named Elisheba Rachel Taylor.”

Explaining that a convert to Judaism is considered "a newborn child," the article recounted the conversion of 27-year-old actress Elizabeth Taylor to the faith. Her newly acquired Hebrew name, used in ceremonies accompanying life cycle events, combined the Hebrew version of Elizabeth with her biblical heroine, Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife.

Raised a Christian Scientist, Taylor’s decision wasn’t sudden. She first thought about converting when she married movie producer Mike Todd, her third husband, who’d been born Avrom Goldbogen and was the grandson of a Polish rabbi, Time reported.

But the theory that Todd - or that her soon-to-be next Jewish husband Eddie Fisher - provided the impetus for her conversion was one she disputed. Taylor's conversion came a year after Todd’s death in a plane crash, Benjamin Ivry wrote Wednesday in The Forward, a Jewish newspaper.

Judaism is not a proselytizing faith. In fact, an ancient practice that some rabbis still follow is to turn away would-be conversion candidates three times before agreeing to work with them as a way to test their commitment.

Taylor reportedly studied for about six months with the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum, a Holocaust survivor affiliated with Judaism's Reform movement and with Hollywood’s Temple Israel. She was assigned books to read and engaged in conversations about traditions and the struggles weighing on Israel, Time reported.

Nussbaum, Ivry of the Forward wrote, “was no star-struck pushover,” even though he’d long been linked to celebrities, performing funerals for people including Al Jolson, Fanny Brice and Sam Goldwyn. Not long after Taylor's conversion, he also would perform the controversial wedding of Taylor to Fisher.

Some gave Taylor a hard time about her decision to convert, but she stood by the choice, Ivry wrote, adding, “Biographer Kitty Kelley quotes Taylor as saying: ‘I felt terribly sorry for the suffering of the Jews during the war. I was attracted to their heritage. I guess I identified with them as underdogs.’”

Last August, The Jewish Journal in southern California published a blog post by Danielle Berrin about Taylor and her Jewish identity. The piece was written soon after the publication of “Furious Love,” which chronicled the actress’s volatile relationship with Richard Burton.

The blog post recounted a scene in the book in which the couple went at it over “who was more ‘Jewish,’” Berrin wrote.

Burton had referred to the Welsh as “the Jews of Britain”, a comment on their self-identity as the outsiders of the United Kingdom. [Note: Burton was Welsh]

“You’re not Jewish at all,” he told Elizabeth in one of their very public fights, “If there’s any Jew in this family, it’s me!”

“I am Jewish,” she answered, “and you can f–k off!”

The JTA, a global Jewish news service, posted Wednesday a blog listing archived stories about Taylor. Among them was a piece about how her 1959 purchase of $100,000 in Israel bonds prompted a ban of her films by authorities of the United Arab Republic.

Another story recounted how Taylor sang in 1961 a Hebrew duet with Fisher in Moscow, while surprising United States servicemen who were stationed in the Soviet capital. And in 1987, she was among those who signed an appeal launched by a Jewish feminist magazine, Lilith, to free Soviet refusenik Ida Nudel.

Taylor, and her films, were barred in 1962 from entering Egypt because she was Jewish and had financially assisted Israel - another hiccup in the already oft-interrupted and financially strapped production of "Cleopatra," which almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, according to the JTA

But her name was later removed from Egypt’s blacklist, after “officials decided the film was good publicity for Egypt which is mentioned 122 times in the movie,” JTA reported in 1964.

The JTA archives also reveal that Taylor “offered herself as a hostage for the more than 100 Air France hijack victims held by terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda during the tense days before the Israeli rescue raid” on July 4, 1976.

That revelation was reportedly disclosed when Taylor and then-husband John Warner were honored at a June 1977 gala for the Jewish National Fund, an environmental organization best known for its tree plantings in Israel.

Elizabeth Taylor and husband John Warner plant a tree in a forest named for them outside Jerusalem.

Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz, gave the couple a certificate for a forest planted in their names near Jerusalem. “Taylor’s offer was ‘appreciated’ and ‘the Jewish people will always remember it,’” Dinitiz said, according to the JTA.

In response, Taylor shared these words, the JTA reported: "'The trees we planted with our own hands in Israel symbolize a new hope that the whole world, Christian, Jew and Arab, will live as one in harmony under God.'"

A couple years later, she signed on to narrate "Genocide," a documentary about the Holocaust that went on to win a 1981 Academy Award. Taylor's participation in the project, which was the first film produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and her connection to center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier were recounted in a Jewish Journal piece published Thursday.

How much Judaism played into Taylor's life in recent years is unclear. But the Jewish Journal reported in its obituary that Taylor had been a supporter of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. And Ivry of the Forward suggested that Taylor's relentless campaigning on behalf of AIDS research and treatment reflected a deep understanding of the Jewish commitment to tzedakah, or charity.

In the Jewish tradition, a person is laid to rest as soon as possible after death. A small funeral service for Taylor was scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Rabbi Jerry Cutler of Creative Arts Temple conducted the service. He describes his community as "unorthodox," and the temple website says it is one that seeks "the joy of Judaism through the creative arts."

Out of respect for Taylor's family, Cutler would not comment Friday morning on the late actress.

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Celebrity • Culture & Science • Judaism • Movies • Uncategorized

soundoff (443 Responses)
  1. Whycan'tweallgetalong

    Whether she was christian, jewish or musllim does any of that matter? What matters is if she was a good person? Was she kind to others, did she help others? I do believe in heaven and I would hope to eventually meet up with the friends & family I've had on this plane...my hindu, my christian, my jewish, my muslim, atheist and even my agnostic friends & family. Why does everyone feel that "their" beliefs are the right ones and everyone elses are wrong? I hope her passage was an easy one and that she was met by people that loved her.
    If my assumption of heaven is correct all this hatred, anger, ignorance, & racism is dropped before you see the light and for those who still carry it in your hearts, your mind, your souls I guess you'll be having a nice hot cup of tea with the likes of Hitler, Stalin, every murderer, pedophile and hateful mean person that passed before you.
    It is not the particulars of your belief it is how you treat others.

    March 24, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      The only way you understand what Jesus wants for us and what He wants from us is to read the Bible (his truth about Life and the Hereafter).

      Amen.

      March 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  2. NSL

    I just don't understand the article at all. Why is there a need to make sense of Ms. Taylor's choice to be a Jew, especially at this point in time. She made a personal choice to be a Jew, studied and converted. Would this article have been written if she converted to Catholicism? I doubt it.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  3. to tell the truth

    If christians are the only ones getting into heaven lord please have an escape route.Religion made up to confused the masses. Telling the truth you christians are no better than jews.Your all a pack of murderers.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your law is truth.
      Psalm 119: 142

      March 25, 2011 at 1:00 am |
  4. Aaron

    <3 Taylor.

    And I am not offended by the notion that her charity was inspired by tzedakah!

    That doesn't mean other faiths don't give to charity... but in this case, let's just celebrate what she believed in and what inspired her and what she inspired.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  5. Alex

    Jesus loves all us all: christians,jews or moslems.
    and he is the only God 🙂

    March 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Alex. That's true that Jesus loves all. It's just too many don't love Him back. Especially this generation of non-believing brats.

      Amen.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:30 am |
    • KD

      Jesus is not G-d, he is the son of G-d.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  6. Ghostality

    'Under dog'. She's simply amazing with her view point. Seems to me she had it going on in more ways than one. So happy to read this story. Good for her!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  7. donye

    No offense and rip to her but all I see non stop is news of her and her death but when Nate Dogg died I only seen something about him on cnn for 4 hours and it was mostly filled wit hate messages. That's not right how when someone white dies its all over here but if you black you barely mentioned, smh

    March 24, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Angela

      Nate Dogg vs. Elizabeth Taylor? Hmm. Let me think . . .

      March 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      donye, probably because Dogg didn't live as long. Elizabeth has been in the public eye since she was a child. She grew up, was married, divorced, widowed, had children became a grandmother, was widowed again, married several more times, injured herself in National Velvet riding a horse in her childhood, had many illnesses in her life, close to death, stayed in the public eye until her death.

      If Nate had lived as long as Liz, maybe they would do the same for him.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:28 am |
    • No One Is Safe

      c'mon, donye... i'm pretty sick of hearing about her, too, already, but seriously... liz taylor was an american icon for more than 50 years... i'm not a fan of rap, so i wouldn't know nate dogg from a fire hydrant, personally, but even if i was a fan, i think i'd be able to see the difference between someone who's been around maybe as much as 10 years (??) to someone who was world-famous for over 5 decades...

      March 25, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  8. Really?

    RELIGION IS A MYTH.
    RELIGION IS A MYTH THAT IS THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD.
    MOST OF THE MISERY AND DEATH ON THIS PLANET IS BECAUSE OF RELIGION.
    RELIGION AND THE FREAKS THAT SPEW THEIR TWISTED VIEWS OF THIS MYTH SUCK.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Really, everyone understands that all non-believers are anti-social, going against community with their temper tantrums. You loose.

      Amen.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  9. Nizhny

    I just lost all respect for her

    March 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  10. Love Her!

    I could care less what religion she was! All I know is that I love her and shall remember her grace, beauty and her kindness in heart. The world is a better place for the time we had her with us and even now that she is not with us. We shall always remember Liz!! Rest in peace, Dearest and thank you for all you did on this earth! Love you so much!!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Amen.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:19 am |
  11. Raphael

    It's hard not to be cynical about Taylor converting to Judaism when so much of Hollywood is Jewish - it certainly didn't hurt her career to be one of the club, so to speak. Now, if, as an actress, she had converted to Islam, or even FROM Judaism to Christianity, no one would doubt her sincerity.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Raphael, Elizabeth converted over because of her husband Michael Todd. Then her husband was killed in an airplane crash and she kept her conversion in memory of him. He was the love of her life.

      Amen.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  12. Larry

    For those that keep quoting this passage: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6 you should realize that he was using a method called remez, a way of teaching. First who was he talking to,,, Jews his students, did you know that the Jews were already in a covanant with God and already had forgiveness of sins under that covanant? When he said I am the WAY, whos Way, not his own but the Fathers, whos TRUTH? Not his own but his Fathers, and the LIFE? implying if you follow my teachings and way of life then you will have life. He is saying you can't come to the Father any other WAY.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Larry, Jesus is God. He sent himself down to earth to defeat death.

      I know it's hard for little minds to grasp His truth. But, try.

      Amen.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:14 am |
    • Christina

      ..and because nobody has been able to obey the Law, God sent a Saviour. The Law condemns, the Gospel saves!

      March 25, 2011 at 12:36 am |
  13. Eyenew

    I knew it wouldn't take long before "soundoff' replies would go south. You people make a mockery of the human race.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  14. rjoco1

    Who cares about her faith. I remember going down an escalator at Dodger stadium right next to her and can attest she was stunningly beautiful.May she rest in peace!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      rjoco1, I agree. It's amazing that anyone could look that beautiful ALL through her life. She was indeed, a graceful lady. May she rejoice with our Lord.

      Amen.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  15. Aviat

    Hey, CNN: Thanks for showing lots of glamourous pics of Taylor, but using one where she looks pensive and ragged to associate that image with her Judaism. How about one from the time she converted? No? Why not?

    It's just plain odd.

    No, really – thank you. You couldn't have made yourself look like a bigger bunch of asses. I really don't know why I keep coming back. Gonna try to type "reuters" in from now on – I promise.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  16. ObamaBlackJesus

    I THOUGHT JEWISH WAS A RACE

    March 24, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • ATHIEST

      HIGH FIVE, JESUS!

      March 24, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      A race, you say... Did anyone win??

      Seriously, I doubt that the Ethiopian Jews have very much in common with the Eastern European Jews – other than their belief system...

      March 24, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  17. Grr82CU

    For the snarky bigots, trolls, cretins, mean-spirited comments....

    "There is nothin' like a dame,
    Nothin' in the world,
    There is nothin' you can name
    That is anythin' like a dame!"

    We – the majority – will miss you Dame Elizabeth Taylor !!!!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  18. Mariana

    I mean.. sorry.. if she gave up Jesus, that's is. Because we Jews don't accept Jesus as the Messiah

    March 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Gregory Reese

      I am Jewish and I accept Jesus as the Mesiah. I accept Him as my saviour. I believe He is the only begotten son of God. It was Jews who began the Christian movement and took it to the world. It was the church in the 4th century that eradicated all that is Jewish from Christianity. Read the gospels and compare what you read with Daniel 7, 8, and 9.

      March 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Gregory, I praise God for you comming to know Yeshua as your Lord and Savior. There is no other name under the heavens by which mankind shall be saved!
      But I want to add to your " It was the church in the 4th century that eradicated all that is Jewish from Christianity"
      two other words: "It was the Roman Catholic church in the 4th century that eradicated all that is Jewish from Christianity".
      Those who knew the Lord and loved Him, have understood His Word, that He is not finished with His people Israel, and have loved His people....
      God shows to His people the desire of His heart, and they love those whom He loves. God will never go back on His promises. He will restore His people to Himself, and when Yeshua, the Lamb of God, takes the scroll out of Father's hand (Rev.5) and all creation, all that is in heaven and earth leaps in shouts of praise, it just may be that it's then when the nation of Israel will recognize who He is..... We have some blessed events ahead in the future, although there will be much suffering... But He will always be with us, even to the day when our eyes will see Him comming in the clouds
      His Blessings and Peace be to you and yours!

      March 24, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • Shells

      I've been privileged to meet wonderful Jewish people invovled in the Messianic Jewish Alliance, all of whom believe Jesus–Yeshua– completely fulfills the prophecy regarding the Messiah. Many Jews believe! Wouldn't it be awful, Mariana, if you are wrong about Jesus?

      March 24, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • AB

      Gregory Reese and Shels – I hate to be the one to tell you but if you believe that Jesus is the Messiah then you are not Jewish. "Messanic Jews" are not Jews they are Christians. I get quite offended when people who are Christians try and pretend that they are Jews, stop trying to confuse the facts. It is fine if you wish to be Christian, but then own it.

      March 25, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      @AB
      They are Jews! They have not stopped being Jews. They just became complete Jews in Yeshua, the Messiah. Those who have not recognized their Messiah, are not yet complete. But God will keep His promise! You'll see!

      March 25, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  19. Mariana

    So did she resigned to Jesus?

    March 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Jesus

      When she was in her 20s, I would have really wanted her to "resign", but lately, I think I'd take a pass.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  20. GetReal

    Linda – I hear ya.

    What a bunch of rude comments on this message board. So what if she was Jewish? What's wrong with talking about it? It was just another beautiful aspect of a complex and lovely woman.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.