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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. True

    Judaism is the most difficult religion to convert to. There is a reason for that. Look it up in Qu'ran and you'll find out. Liz had to convert to Judaism for business reasons.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  2. art_vandolaye

    I am currently a caucasion hetrero male. Is there a way I can convert to a black lesbian female? Just wondering aloud, since there are so many highly educated dweebs in these forum blogs. Let me know please. -Art

    March 25, 2011 at 1:18 am |
  3. Gigi Soros

    Gigi Why we cannot get along? All of us Children of G-d.If You are bed to others, You put downe G-d Who created all of us. Have a respect. I am also a convert in my old age.I just see what I have missed in my life.As a jew I really learned to love every person as G-d commanded us.Thank You if You respect all the Religion and keep the Judgement to G-d.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:13 am |
  4. True

    Liz was Jewish ??!! Wow!! Oh, she converted. That doesn't count as Jewish.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:06 am |
    • SammyTT

      uh, if done right, yes it does.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  5. Rev-Henry Bates

    Christian Science is not Scientology. I think someone mistakenly thought it was (Kamereon)?
    Oldest religion is Huduism:
    Hinduism: 4500 yo
    Judaism: 3500 yo
    Buddhism: 2500 yo
    Christianity: 2000 yo
    Islam: 1400 yo

    March 25, 2011 at 12:49 am |
  6. art_vandolaye

    Didn't George Costanza make a religious conversion on Sienfeld? Ie, a Jew can also convert. -Art

    March 25, 2011 at 12:47 am |
    • Mamulya

      FEstivus for the rest of us! He converted to Latvian Orthodox in order to get laid with a nun. Larry David is a genius, Seinfeld would have been a small potatoes stand up comic without him... And that's the gospel truth ;-)))

      March 25, 2011 at 1:23 am |
  7. Mary

    May Elizabeth Taylor (or her Jewish name, whatever she goes by in that religion) find peace and happiness in her afterlife.
    This discussion, while quite illuminating, fails to mention her wonderful and devoted family (or who gets the amazing diamonds that were given to her by her previous eight husbands?!)
    While I respect and admire the Jews for their perseverance after World War II and their continued contributions to the world, I, myself, as a Catholic part (technically) German and Eastern European American citizen believe that many people, regardless of religion, culture or financial background, are wonderful contributers to society with new generations expanding and demonstrating its potential. While Jesus died for our sins on the cross and the Messiah has not yet walked the Earth are poignant discussions, the fact that Germans and their descendants have been persecuted from World War II until the beginning of 2011 is also abhorrent and makes the people of the Jewish faith, whether they be from Israel, Iran or another country completely and utterly wrong and undeniably much like Hitler. Astonishingly, I once considered converting to Judaism from Catholicism. However, on personal reflection, I found myself unwilling to give up my heritage and religion in order to be more accepted by society's past views. Did my ancestors cause the Holocaust? No. Were my ancestors some of the casualties of the Holocaust during WWII? Yes. I pray to God daily that I may be blessed with a husband or mate that I may be blessedto give birth to his children so I may try to make the world a more accepting place to live in. I hope Elizabeth Taylor's family find solace in each other and find happiness when they reflect on her amazing life, career and contributions. Thank you Elizabeth Taylor for all of your performances during the formative years of Film making!

    March 25, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • SammyTT

      boy, is this blame the victim or what?! Did your German and Polish ancestors cause the holocaust. YES! Despite this historical truth (if you are willing to face it or not), as a descendant, you are not to blame. However, spewing the borderline anti-semitisms and trying to flip your guilt (which you don't need to have anyway) onto the entire Jewish world is within the purview of your current powers. Don't be a putz. I hope you will try and think more before you say such things next time.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:24 am |
    • John

      Hahahahahaha, what are you talking about? The Nazis killed over 2.5 million non-Jewish Poles (not to mention millions of other non-Jewish ethnic groups that never get mentioned).

      March 25, 2011 at 1:28 am |
    • Mamulya

      The Germans also killed 20,000,000 Soviet people, that Americans always fail to mention when they take credit for "winning" in WWII.

      As to Mary – I'm amazed anyone made any sense of all that gibberish. Poor thing forgot to take her medication.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:39 am |
  8. Name*lsg

    Judaism was the first religion ,then from judaism came christianity and muslims. You should know the bible and history before making comments.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • John

      Zoroastrianism came before Judaism and the Jews borrowed the idea of monotheism from the Zoroasters.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • Ron

      so u r saying Abraham was a Jew?

      March 25, 2011 at 1:34 am |
  9. Priyath

    Islam is the easiest religion to convert to. All you need is an Imam with a knife. Also Islam is the hardest religion to convert away from. You will be risking your life if you do so.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:14 am |
    • the truth

      The dirtiest religion in the world is Hinduism where people worship monkeys snakes and rats....they drink cow pi§§ cause they think its holy.....lol and yukkkkk!!!!

      March 25, 2011 at 1:03 am |
    • Ron

      Thanks Glenn Beck 🙂 you are really good at scare tactics!

      March 25, 2011 at 1:36 am |
  10. JennyTX

    I believe that there is enough room in heaven for ALL good people and that God does not discriminate on the basis of religion.

    March 24, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  11. Saul

    LIZ WAS A WANNA BE !!!

    March 24, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
  12. Saul

    Why can't we all just get along...........

    March 24, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
  13. Tori - Tova

    As an individual near the end of the conversion process, I truly admire Ms. Taylor for her strength. Converting to Judaism takes immense work and dedication; it is not a matter of basic beliefs. It's a complete change in lifestyle.
    May she rest in peace.

    March 24, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
    • SammyTT

      Very thoughtful comment. I would only add that Liz Taylor embodied the most important trait of a convert – to become Jewish is not just to follow the laws of the religion, but is really about becoming part of the people. To do so means knowing and accepting a long history, ups and downs included, and to thrust one's self from being part of a majority to being part of minority. This takes courage and perseverance. Good luck Tova!

      March 25, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  14. Heavenly angels

    God bless EvErYoNe!

    March 24, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  15. Kamereon

    HAHAHA! I was just thinking earlier, wow she was in Hollywood that long? How did she do it, she's not gay, jewish, or christian scientist. Boy was I wrong, 2 out of 3. I wouldn't be surprised if someone write's a biography of her, and tells everyone that Liz was a lez, and that all the marriages were just a beard.

    March 24, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
    • krenee

      You're an as**.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  16. Heavenly angels

    GOD bless us all.

    March 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  17. tjmc

    I dont care how she labled herself! Jesus said love each other as I have loved you. I for one know one day I will tell Dame Taylor what a truly great example of Love she showed this world!

    March 24, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • leonard

      jesus is a myth. no one like him has ever existed.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  18. Heavenly angels

    Everyones soul is going to live for eternity. You just have to decide where that will be. No sitting on the fence for this one. Once you're dead it's too late to decide. The bible is the Book of Life. It gives us direction, laws, truth, and this is what and how GOD wants for us. Religion has nothing to do with Liz Taylors passing. Right now she knows where she is. It's not for us to judge anyone. Liz had a Great life. Did a lot of good for many people. She had the greatest opportunity to use her talents to uplift many people in many countries. I loved Liz and my prayers are with ALL of her family and friends. The hard part for Liz is over. It,s the next phase for her family and EVERYONE who loved her that will have to deal with the loss and grieving process. So please be kind hearted on here because you never know who will be reading these messages. It could affect her family. Gob bless us all.

    March 24, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Heavenly angels. Satan's soul is going to perish. It is written. Those that love and follow satan will feel those flames too if they don't repent for their sins, and sin no more. There are millions of souls that are headed for the eternal flames to be blotted out. They chose this for themselves. Jesus just obliges them.

      Amen.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  19. Gene

    The Mighty Lion of The Tribe of Judah, Christ Jesus, rules and reigns. Praise His Holy Name.

    March 24, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • Sandra

      Amen!

      March 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
    • Sam

      All hail the Flying Spaghetti Monster! I was touched by his noodley appendage.

      March 24, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • little buddy

      Pooloo-see-bagoombaa

      March 24, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • leonard

      mighty lion? he was a myth(and still is)

      March 25, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • little buddy

      yup...same as noah and abraham!

      March 25, 2011 at 12:36 am |
    • Semiahmoo

      † † †

      March 25, 2011 at 1:22 am |
  20. Cruzader

    Who really cares?

    March 24, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
    • Dee

      Obviously you do Cruz! You read the article and EVEN MADE A COMMENT!! LOL

      March 24, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • dan

      just cause someone makes a reply, doesnt mean they care about the topic or article.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • Semiahmoo

      What Dee said.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:21 am |
    • Bill

      They look like movie stars in the black/white photos.It was a beufuiatl wedding for two beufuiatl people.K's parents looked too young to have such a mature, handsome son!

      July 29, 2012 at 7:54 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.