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. quack25

    with the world population the way it is.. it seems that ultimately Buddism and the Chinese culture will take over the whole world. Islam, christians and Jews will become extinct.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  2. A Non Jew

    Wow, there are a lot of racist Jews on here today! I wonder if it's any of the CNN Cast members, like Larry King, Wolf Blitzer, or Dana Bash....or possibly one of the Jewish Producers who's spitting out all this anti-christian rhetoric. Don't bite the hand that feeds you....and keeps you safe from the Muslims.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  3. Kim

    I just attended my mother in law's funeral, who was also by the way Madonna's grandmother. What a difference. My mother in law was very loved and lived to be 99 years old, but I found the customs of their religion very different, with the body laying in the funeral home for visitation, the open casket, a large funeral, lunch and a wake lasting days. So when I heard that Ms. Taylor was already laid to rest, I breathed a small sigh. We are so very different in our customs and beliefs, but the human emotions of grief and loss are exactly the same. Sometimes people forget that they way they grieve isn't the way everyone greives. Many will miss the fact that she was buried by her Jewish religious practices and there is not a big funeral.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  4. bob

    Well, If you don't accept the baby Jesus, you can't expect salvation. Otherwise, the beatings, crucifixion, and shedding of blood were for nothing. He sacrificed Himself for us. All you need do is believe. As Jesus said, the way to the Father was through Him.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Mike

      Jesus, Shmeesus

      March 24, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  5. jill schramel

    Please would you all of people respect to Elizabeth taylor and her childern and family member ... Leave alone please no point them about jewish just peace them thank you. Amen !

    March 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Edwin

      jill, the point of the article WAS her conversion. It is therefore a reasonable topic for this blog.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  6. bob

    If you don't accept the baby Jesus, you can't expect salvation. Otherwise, the beatings, crucifixion, and shedding of blood were for nothing. He sacrificed Himself for us. All you need do is believe. As Jesus said, the way to the Father was through Him.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • simon

      you know bob Jesus never said that...Paul and his apostles may have but since Jesus was already a Jew, and nowhere can you tell direct me to anything that states Jesus wanted to create a sect or religion apart from what he was.... a Jew. He carried the message of G-d, as did Abraham, Moses, and other prophets before and after. It was the followers that came after him that decided that they should construct the rules of this new sect to specifically say that only through Jesus would you ascend....Do you really believe Jesus would punish the very people who created monotheism because they did not change what they already believed for over 1500 years?? I think if you believe YOU will find salvation through Jesus i'm pleased for you. Don;t worry about us, G-d chose us for a reason and we will be ok.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Edwin

      bob, I understand that your religion requires you to disparage non-believers as much as possible, but... could you give it a rest, at least on this blog? Elizabeth Taylor was an amazing woman. If all you see is her religious choice, you miss all the rest of the person.

      I have many christian friends, and most probably do believe I will not receive salvation. Yet they do not badger me with this fact - rather, they accept me and my choices. Badgering others about their choices serves no useful purpose to anyone.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • John M.

      Well you know, Bob, from reading your snarky remarks I have a strong hunch that Ms. Taylor embodied Christ's lessons of compassion and caring for others, especially outcasts and those in need, rather more that you do. And I also have a hunch that he's pretty impressed with that. And also with her humility, such as when after she had won an Academy Award, she said that her acting in that role wasn't really good enough and that she had probably been give the Oscar out of sympathy for her recent serious illness. Humility and compassion, Bob - I think that's more Jesus-like than your posting of snarky comments on articles about a recently deceased person.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  7. bobby

    It's funny cause she actually looks Jewish in the picture lol!

    March 24, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • Neil

      Really? Exactly what do Jewish people look like?

      March 24, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  8. dh321

    Simply, I could care less what religion she was. I absolutely agree with those who feel she converted for the money however...As someone who isn't Jewish, but have family(by mariage) and business associates that are Jewish, this faith seems very racist to me. Racist in the fact they don't allow outsiders in "their world" nor embrace business associates outside the faith.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • simon

      dh21...your comments are ridiculous. maybe your family just doesn't like or trust you and based on your blatant stupidity i agree with them. As an attorney, an astounding amount of my lawsuits involve jew against jew. This notion that all is harmonic in the business world between jews is so stupid and misinformed. You are dumb. that's the best way to put it.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Peter

      It's funny to see Simon and Michelle trolling in defense of their religion. Way to go, guys.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  9. Peter

    Is it just me or do these comments not display chronologically?

    March 24, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • Edwin

      Peter: it's not just you. The order mechanism they use does not work all the time - responses do not even attach to posts all the time.

      It may be intentional, but I think it is just a computer bug...

      March 24, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  10. Peter

    Would CNN have written this article if she had converted to Buddhism or Catholicism? I don't think so.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • simon

      and why would they not have Peter? Many of us would have equally enjoyed an article that provided any insight on her faith and how it caused her to display selflessness and charity to others....It would not have mattered what she converted to if the catalyst of her goodness came through it..i am sorry to see so many imbeciles posting.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • John M.

      The reason that you are wrong. Peter, is because the interesting thing in the story is not what particular religion she converted to, but why. The sense of sympathy she felt for what the Jewish people had gone through apparently caused her to want to identify with them more closely, and this reaction is entirely consistent with how she responded to those afflicted with AIDS decades later. There seems to be a bit of a pattern here that indicates something about her character, which is what makes this article interesting to me.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Edwin

      Peter, you are so wrong. They did not write this out of love for Judaism.

      If you want to be cynical, they wrote this because Elizabeth Taylor is a hot topic right now, and ANY article they write will get massive readership. They will use her as a story as long as possible, in as many ways as possible, until the public is no longer interested.

      If she had converted to Buddhism, they would have run the story, perhaps in multiple parts - then used it as a segue into some stories about other Buddhists in America and the impact they have had. In short, they would milk it for all it's worth...

      March 24, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  11. Edgar

    Talking about a Goddess, Dame Elizabeth Taylor was one. Her beautiful eyes said it all. My respect to my Jewish friends. Peace!

    March 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  12. Jim

    At least she didn't try to steal a middle eastern country like some other European converts.

    March 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • Michelle

      Disgraceful; it amazes me that you would display your racism and stupidity on such a public forum – I pray for your soul.

      March 24, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • simon

      @jim..learn your history. i know you are deeply jealous as most anti semites are, They cannot stand the impact that only a few million people are able to make...a tenth of a percent of the global populace yet influential in every possible arena. The contributions of the jewish people in medecine and science have saved tens of millions if not more. I'm sorry your boss is jewish and he doesn't pay you enough in your opinion...maybe its because you're so stupid and uneducated and he/she simply employs you out of pity.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • Peter

      Simon showing all the best sides of the Jewish religion.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
  13. jan johnson

    how cares really about her reg back ground she rest under the stars know for she is one god truely blessed her.

    March 24, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  14. Roanoke

    Converting to Judaism has got to yield big dividends in Hollywood.

    March 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Michelle

      You are truly a disgrace Roanoke. How would you feel if someone said this had she converted to Christianity or whatever it is you are?

      March 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • simon

      @roanoke..you are a dufus. Taylor was a star at 15 years old and she converted in her late 20's..i'm not sure she needed any "="dividends" you moron.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  15. Beth Boyle

    Interesting I had forgotten she had converted. I am shocked at so many twisted and ugly posts concerning this story. Can't we respect the dead and honor those who lived and did good?

    March 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Kent Bowen

      So right...the significance of this article is that it provides insight beyond the Hollywood obvious as to who Elizabeth Taylor was...I know there will be too many people who will cite her Jewish background and the reporting of such as part of the "Jewish conspiracy", but they are the representative of the bigots still all round us. Elizabeth Taylor was a beautiful woman, inside and out, leave it at that. From a good ole boy and former Southern Baptist.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  16. jan johnson

    the fact of it all this woman lived will had a full life. she'll will be a icon for many of years to come god bless her. she was a great star and will always be remembered. may she rest in peace.

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

    CNN put up so many beautiful pictures of her, until this comes out about her love of Judaism and Israel, and it seems CNN's obvious antisemetic inclinations just couldn't stay down, and they chose the most unflattering picture of her to accompany this article. Like suddenly now she's not a beautiful human being inside and out? That was really really low and an obvious below the belt blow to such a wonderful compassionate person who inspired so many.

    March 24, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • ringo

      I prefer to think that they showed her as a grownup, and not the starlette that most people think of.

      March 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • jessica

      I totally agree with your post- they chose the most awful picture to run with this story.- it is very biased.

      March 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Actually, I like that picture of her. She has an inner beauty that shows through, especially in those awesome eyes.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • John M.

      Are you complainers nuts? A whole lot of women in this world would love to look like that at age 75, which she was. She was beautiful even then, and I'm sorry you think she was only beautiful many years ago.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • FreeSpiritGal

      This is a beautifil picture of her! Her soul shines through and touches everyone's heart. RIP beautiful and soulful Goddess!!

      March 24, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Edwin

      I'm with ringo. Religious faith is not about youth or beauty. The picture shows her older, to be sure, but age is associated with wisdom - giving more credence to her conversion. Becoming Jewish is supposed to be a lifelong change.

      And to be honest, I prefer her later look. It reflects less of Hollywood and more of Elizabeth Taylor.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • wigwam

      If you think this picture was chosen to denigrate her conversion to Judaism, you are looking for something to whine about. I would have been more inclined to think she was a bimbo in converting had they posted one of the "juicier" shots of her. Please stop making everything all about YOU.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Rachel

      Debbie, I thought the same thing. This was the most unflattering picture I have seen on CNN - the instant they talk about her Jewish faith, they choose this one. Curious, eh?

      March 24, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • Rachel

      John: I'm not saying that the picture is a bad choice because it does not show her as a 25 year old. I have seen a lot of very nice pictures of her as an older lady accompanying various articles. This one, though, just isn't flattering - not even for a lady Taylor's age in this shot. When there are so many good ones out there, I'm surprised they chose this one.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • knobe

      I think it is uber shallow and ignorant of people who rate a person as unattractive because of their real age .
      Your need for an ancient picture says Terrible terrible things about YOU .

      No wonder the United States is sliding down hill , tooooooo many barbie air heads on the loose .

      March 24, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  18. Jess

    This has to be one of the most poorly written articles on CNN. You actually need to explain De Forvitz to people? It looks like the reporter spent half her day on Wikipedia "researching."

    March 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Anthony

      Well Jess, as a journalist myself (although I don't work for CNN), I can tell you that a good reporter cannot assume that everyone knows "De Forvitz".

      March 24, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • knobe

      De Forvitz ? Never heard of it and I spent over 3 decades in the tech / professional industry in California .
      Not everyone is exposed to the wide myriad of religions .
      I'll lay odds most are NOT familiar with Buddhism although it has one of the Largest followings in the world .

      Again , De Forvitz , am not familiar with it nor most Jewish aspects .

      March 24, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  19. Charles Duerden

    Re Taylor's offer to be a hostage at Entebbe,she also played the part of a made-for-TV drama about the event in 1977.

    March 24, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  20. Meg

    I have to say that I respect her MORE for convertina as an adult. She read texts, talked to the relevant people, and lived a faith she believed in. She formed her own opinion. To me, that makes her choice holy. I am not affiliated with any religion. Yet, I believe that faith is a deeply personal choice and I respect those who come to it with open minds and open hearts. I think Elizabeth Taylor was an incredible human being. Talent, joy, compassion, humor, the list could go on forever. I'm sure most Jewish communities are proud to claim her as one of their own just as I am proud to count her as an inspiration. Thank you Dame Taylor, for being a true heart, mind, and soul.

    March 24, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • knobe

      Well said , thanks

      March 24, 2011 at 10:35 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.