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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. Mick White, Leicester UK

    A beautiful British lady who became a woman of the world. Yeah, I'm proud to be British and support the Church of England, but I'm just wise enough to know that we are also all human beings whatever nationality or religion. Please may I quote another person (who just happens to be British, but also a man of the world!), John Lennon: "Love is the answer – All you need is Love." God Bless, Mick White, UK.

    March 25, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Igor

      Bravo

      March 26, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • NEWSFLASH

      SODOM AND GOMMORAH HAVE BEEN FOUND! PROOF..pictures, maps etc

      http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/04/The-Discovery-of-the-Sin-Cities-of-Sodom-and-Gomorrah.aspx

      CONCLUSION OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL FIND:

      When the archaeological, geographical and epigraphic evidence is reviewed in detail, it is clear that the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have now been found. What is more, this evidence demonstrates that the Bible provides an accurate eyewitness account of events that occurred southeast of the Dead Sea over 4,000 years ago.

      March 26, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
  2. Leon

    I can not believe the uneducated comments on here. No wonder why americas is going to hell.

    March 25, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  3. Steven

    I'm not offended that Liz Taylor left Christianity for Judaism–I'm offeneded that she like the TV show Law & Order.

    March 25, 2011 at 8:51 am |
  4. christy

    Wow...looks like a lot of us need History lessons...I am christian, but also know MOST people in ancient times were jewish...including Jesus...christianisty came way later...

    March 25, 2011 at 7:28 am |
    • f0xd0g

      umm...ok, so i get that Jesus was born Jewish - they both begin with J, riight? But then when John the Baptist baptized him, didn't that make him Catholic?

      March 25, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  5. TommyTT

    Amazing and nasty discussion–prompted more by a poorly written headline than the article itself, which makes it clear that Taylor's commitment to Judaism was deep and lasting. But "making sense" of her conversion? That's an insulting notion. Imagine the uproar among evangelists if CNN published an article trying to "make sense" of someone's conversion to Christianity.

    March 25, 2011 at 7:12 am |
  6. Allen Hill

    Religion can't save you from GOD's wrath. Look at the Pharasees. GOD told Moses in Exodus, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy." Jesus Christ is the only one who can save or destroy a soul. Trust only in his shed blood at the Cross. Be merciful upon us sinners.

    March 25, 2011 at 6:04 am |
  7. Micki

    I happened to find this site and couldn't believe that in America there is still some people like this who are so hateful and so inconsiderate of other people's religions. I married an Irishman and live in Ireland, but grew up in Philadelphia, where I was raised in an Italian neighborhood, where a family named Tinelli terrorized me for years because I was Jewish. I truly believe that Christians who damn people to hell are not pracicing their religion at all and are not showing their compassion of Christianity .My parents were holocaust surviviors. I come from a legacy of what hatred can do and as a result millions of Jews were killed. I raised my son to not judge people by their religion or anything like that, but to judge them individually. I am very sad that in Amerca bigotry still is such a problem. If this is an indication, it is a sad statement about our society. I would hope that all of you would just wish Elizabeth peace and wish her well. I respect any one's belief and right to choose their religion, and would never damn anyone to hell. It is wrong to do that, and I would hope that things would change in America and all over the world....Maybe, I won't see the change, but I hope that one day it happens.

    March 25, 2011 at 6:04 am |
    • rs1201

      You should visit your native country and you'll be astonished at how amazing and wonderful it is. Sure, we have bigots and serious problems but down deep, we are a people who have zero tolerance for human rights abuses. That family, Tinelli, that terrorized you as a youngster would have suffered serious consequences today. American Jews are thriving, accomplished beyond belief, and are one of the most important aspects of American culture. Come back and see for yourself.

      March 25, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  8. D Block

    Ones religious faith and observance is a personal matter. Why people are so fixed on prying intoA he private life of celebrities has always left me baffled. At a moment when we remember this great public women who did more than her part to make the world a little better place for many, bloggers get inflamed throwing religious fireballs at one another. I will say a kiddush for Dame Taylor and offer my prayers to her family and friends in their time of mourning.http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/.element/img/3.0/1px.gif

    March 25, 2011 at 4:48 am |
  9. Jerry Whitson

    Beauty, Brains and Soul. Did I mention Beauty? I saw National Velvet on tv when I was 14. She was 12 in that film, and already a pre-woman. It was love for the next 45 years! My daughter is named....well yeah, Elizabeth.

    If Liz found something in Judaism she had not found from her Christian Science upbringing, then good for her.

    March 25, 2011 at 3:15 am |
    • Jesus

      I understand the conversion need. For many years I was an agnostic, but recently converted to atheism.

      March 25, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  10. Peace would be nice.

    I was raised christian but have no trouble feeling spiritual in churches, mosques or synagogues. Open your heart and they are all equal.

    March 25, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  11. isabel

    whatever she choose to be was her business , im sure she could have cared less what anybody did. she did alot when she was with us , so let her rest in peace. she was unique ,there will never be another liz taylor. she was a beautiful woman till the end.

    March 25, 2011 at 2:44 am |
  12. WayneVA

    Best wishes E.T. I hope your choice was a good one. The Tanakh-Old Testament describes numerous historical prophecies, that were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, numerous miracles for skeptics, and his historical resurrection from death. Power of Jesus Christ to save individuals from their sins when the individual repents of sins and receives Jesus Christ into his or her life and commits his or her life to him.
    [44 ] Then he (Jesus) said to them (disciples), “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” [45 ] Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, [46 ] and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, [47 ] and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. [48 ] You are witnesses of these things.”
    (Luke 24:44-48 ESV)

    March 25, 2011 at 2:28 am |
    • The Bobinator

      She's in the ground, not concious. I don't think that she needs your best wishes.

      Furthermore, quoting the bible, really? Tell me again about how the story of Job makes sense. Or how Jesus' birth could have occured at 4bc and 6ad. Or how about how all the young males were slain, but no historical recording exists. Or how about how the holy men rose up and walked about the streets, but wasn't recorded.

      That's right, I had forgotten. You believe on faith, not on actual demonstratable fact.

      March 25, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • DMG

      So WayneVa, Just what prophecies of the old testament did Jesus fullfill?? Was the House of David restored during Jesus's lifetime?? No, Judea continued to be ruled by Roman proxy and the descendants of Herod only to be fully conquered 40 years after hs death. Did the people of the world recognize the God of the Jews as the one true God, nope, not that either, Rome wouldn't convert to Pauline Christianity for nearly 300 years, and that's only Rome, we're talking the whole world not just the ancient west. The truth of the matter is Jesus did not fullfill any prophecies concerning the Jewish Messiah, not the two I mentioned, nor any other's. Judaism does not recognize a Messianic claimant who fails in his or her Messianic mission during their lifetimes. The concept of resurection is Egyptian, the rebirth of Osiris for instance, the whole idea that the Messiah can not fullfill the Mesianic mission and must be reborn to do so is alien and not Jewish. Lol this is probably why 2000 years later we are still waiting, lol and that's all we are going to do, if Jesus didn't get it done then, he is never going to get it done.

      it's just a little condescending and disrespectful to say "I hope your choice was a good one" as if to suggest that some sort of judgement on that is forthcoming for Ms. Taylor, not very Christian of you

      March 25, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • The Straight Skinny

      Many passages in the Bible have a contradiction in one place or another. Daniel 9:9 "The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving,.." Psalm 94:1 "O Jehovah, thou God to whom vengeance belongeth... ". So which one is it?

      March 25, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  13. Chaim

    The article heading is "Making sense of Elizabeth Taylor's Jewish conversion."

    This implies that her conversion did not make sense and that a conversion to Judaism is to be wondered at.

    For the racists who deleted my earlier post: - a big nihilistic....t(-_-t)....to you who learned how to be Nazis while calling yourselves Jews.
    For those who appreciate honesty, thank you for your kind words.

    March 25, 2011 at 2:11 am |
    • Thinker23

      Chaim: "This implies that her conversion did not make sense and that a conversion to Judaism is to be wondered at."

      Not at all. This implies that there are idiots among us who need help in making sense of it.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:29 am |
    • The Straight Skinny

      You're claiming a skeleton in a closet where there is none. Yes, Jews have historically been persecuted, but there's no need to turn it into paranoia. Believe it or not, everybody's not out to "get you".

      March 25, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  14. Alicia de Najera Sena

    So there's a different God for all of us? A god for the jews, a god for the Hindus, a god for the Christians, a god for the Mormons, a god for the Muslems ,,,, blah, blah, blah, blah blah.........Who made the animals? Which god made them? PLEEESE people-stop this hatred--pleeese....WE ARE ONE-–oh and by the way, Jesus was a Aries...he was not born on Dec 24th...and he is not a Pisces.........let's get our facts straight-–like it's a fact that we all come from the same place from the same GOD-one God for all living beings-one God for all exquisite living, breathing creatures!!!! Me and YOU!! Love one another as I have loved you...eternally.

    March 25, 2011 at 2:10 am |
  15. the truth

    This is a personal story.....it should not be pasted in public like that

    March 25, 2011 at 2:07 am |
    • The Straight Skinny

      That's exactly why it SHOULD be posted.

      March 25, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  16. Alicia de Najera Sena

    So there's a different God for all of us? A god for the jews, a god for the Hindus, a god for the Christians, a god for the Mormons, a god for the Muslems ,,,, blah, blah, blah, blah blah.........Who made the animals? Which god made them? PLEEESE people-stop this hatred--pleeese....WE ARE ONE-–oh and by the way, Jesus was a Aries...he was not born on Dec 24th...and he is not a Pisces.........let's get our facts straight-–like it's a fact that we all come from the same place from the same GOD-one God for all living beings-one God for all exquisite living, breathing creatures!!!! Me and YOU!!

    March 25, 2011 at 2:06 am |
    • Joe Christianson

      Repeating the same message just makes you look foolish.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:53 am |
  17. Alicia de Najera Sena

    So there's a different God for all of us? A god for the jews, a god for the Hindus, a god for the Christians, a god for the Mormons, a god for the Muslems ,,,, blah, blah, blah, blah blah.........Who made the animals? Which god made them? PLEEESE people-stop this hatred--pleeese....WE ARE ONE-–oh and by the way, Jesus was a Aries...he was not born on Dec24th...and he is not a Pisces.........let's get our facts straight-–like it's a fact that we all come from the same place from the same GOD-one God for all living beings-one God for all exquisite living, breathing creatures!!!! Me and YOU!!

    March 25, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • the truth

      Actually Muslims Jews and Christians have the same Abrahamic creator named as God Yahweh and Allah.....other religions have their own seperate gods

      March 25, 2011 at 2:12 am |
    • Micki

      Yes, there are various Gods based on which religion you believe in. You just are so close minded that you don't want to accept anyone else's right to believe in something else. Jesus by the way was Jewish...You all just created a new religiom after he died based on him. He was a rabbi. Why don't you practice Christianity and be kind to people? That might be a novel idea and let Elizabeth rest in peace. Practice what you preach...that is a interesting concept.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:47 am |
    • rs1201

      Perhaps, you should first "stop the hatred". You capitalized Hindu and Christian and used small letters for JEWS. You don't have to tell us what your true feelings are...they're quite evident.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:58 am |
    • Steve

      Thank you Alicia, wish all people think like you.

      March 25, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  18. Aberie Ikinko

    Goodbye Elizabeth. Your star shone so brightly. One of the most beautiful people that ever lived. Inside and out.

    March 25, 2011 at 2:00 am |
  19. Frederica

    Celebrities claim to belong to religions they never practice.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:51 am |
    • Smite Me

      Frederica,

      You claim to have a brain, which you seldom use.

      (or should I say, which you 'never' use, and sound as ridiculous as you do)

      March 25, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  20. MacAndrews

    Such a go around over what is ultimately metaphor and myth. It's a shame that people cannot find purpose and compassion for others through their own humanity. Are you all so afraid to accept the human condition and let go of your own egos. Nothing is everlasting but if you look hard enough you just might find eternity, every day, all the time, in every moment. Peace and love, Sammy Davis (Yep I converted too babe).

    March 25, 2011 at 1:43 am |
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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.