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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. Barry

    So she converted, what is the issue?
    Question is why was she buried at a non-jewish cemetery? Doesn't make sense.

    March 29, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  2. Eleanor

    Really, all this spewing hatred regarding an article on Elizabeth Taylor? Pathetic. Bottom line here: Taylor converted years ago. Apparently she stayed Jewish, but not religious. She apparently identified with the Jewish people. She was buried with a Jewish service. Obviously she rejected Jesus as a god. No, you don't have to be Jewish to work in Hollywood. You have to be civil to work in the public arena though, which should disallow the Storm Front and all neo Nazi's living in the hills and nooks and hollows of dumbed down America. For those who feel the need to constantly want Jews to accept Jesus, my answer is that Jews did accept Jesus – as a full blooded Jewish boy. He lived as a Jew and was buried as a Jew. He never advocated anybody changing or making a new religion. You cannot vote in a person as a god in the year 325 at the Conference of Nicea. Jesus became a god with a vote. Read it because it is history and in all the history books. So I say to the anti-Semite, learn something, it will do you good.

    March 28, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  3. blessedgeek

    Jesus is NOT, has NEVER been and NEVER will be the king of Jews.

    March 26, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  4. blessedgeek

    חתול על גג בדיל חם
    Cat on hot tin roof.

    March 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  5. WayneVA

    Magic
    WayneVA,
    Don't you think that 'Matthew' (or whoever wrote that book) read the OT? These 'fulfillments' could very well have been purposely added to the story to give it some oomph.
    Nance
    AMEN

    @Magic & Nance, interesting point. But not possible, simply because the Gospels were written while eyewitnesses and enemies were still alive. They would never have allowed fabrications or embellishments to pass as truth! Back to Jesus of Nazareth & his resurrection & repentance & faith in him!

    March 26, 2011 at 1:20 am |
    • Magic

      WayneVA

      "Magic
      WayneVA,
      Don't you think that 'Matthew' (or whoever wrote that book) read the OT? These 'fulfillments' could very well have been purposely added to the story to give it some oomph.
      Nance
      AMEN

      @Magic & Nance, interesting point. But not possible, simply because the Gospels were written while eyewitnesses and enemies were still alive. They would never have allowed fabrications or embellishments to pass as truth! Back to Jesus of Nazareth & his resurrection & repentance & faith in him!"

      -------------------------

      So, this ambiguous, easily disputed set of writings is the best that an omniscient being could come up with as proof of his existence?

      March 26, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  6. Laurie Ellen

    Jesus was not God's only son,,,,WE ARE ALL GOD'S CHILDREN.
    Jesus was born and died Jewish.
    Jesus followed the laws of the time and kept Kosher (no pork),,so why do Christian eat pork on Easter...
    Jesus would be rolling in his grave if he knew that Christians ate pork,,,but then,,,Christians believe that he rose from the dead,,so there is no grave....

    March 25, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  7. GUEST

    Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech, and are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away. But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

    For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
    For it is written,
    "I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE,
    AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE."

    Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
    For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

    The natural person is cut off from the spirit of the living God and does not understand the wisdom of God which is shown above, however when a person trusts in God's grace and places their faith in Jesus whom God sent as a gift and sacrifice for our sins, (which is why God used all of the sacrifices in the Old Testament, as a symbol of his son's coming) then the person is justified by the payment of Jesus righteous blood that was shed for sinners. If God is perfect, good, and Holy then he can not just overlook evil or sin, and if he did he would no longer be righteous and good. This is the purpose of God becoming man and dying as a sacrifice for sin, because the payment price could be no less than God himself or it would not be a sufficient payment for sins against him. No sacrifice that is a creature has the value and righteousness to pay for sins. Jesus is the son of the living God and is equal in divinity and value. The son of God was not created by God the Father, he is eternal and has always been with God from eternity past.

    God chooses who he will save, and is not obligated to save anyone because all are evil at heart and deserve judgement. You can blaspheme God if you want, but his plan will come to pass just as he wills. Everyone is corrupt and blind from the things of God, that's why there is all of this nonsense about him posted on this blog; Nothing but foolish talk about things you don't understand.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  8. Dennis Ryan

    No wonder the melting pot never took place . Can I get an Amen !

    March 25, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  9. Dennis Ryan

    No wonder the "melting Pot " never took place...Can I just get an Amen !

    March 25, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  10. Micki

    To RS201. If this microcosm is a representation of America, you may be wrong , but I hope what you said is true. I left America only a few years back, and I taught in many States in the USA, and still saw a lot of prejudice against religion and race....the South being the worse. I do hope that things are better. I have to admit that I do love living in Ireland.
    Thanks for writing!

    March 25, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  11. nownow

    It is true that Jesus was born of the tribe of Judah, but provided correction to the Jewish leaders of his time who had corrupted the law. You might say Jesus was a strict constructionist with a sense of humor who often quoted the Books of Moses and Pslams. Two quotes come to mind showing the sense of humor. On celibacy...."if you can" – knowing that you can't..and to Nathaniel - who said "nothing good ever came from Nazareth" to which he responded – "a true son of Israel"

    March 25, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  12. WayneVA

    @Bobinator, the grave is not the end. Jesus resurrected from death, leaving an empty tomb behind, and numerous eyewitnesses who saw him and spent time with him. Specific history of year, politicians, and geographic regions of rule.
    [John the Baptist Prepares the Way]
    [Luke 3 :1-3] In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, [2 ] during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. [3 ] And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
    Yes, I have faith in Jesus Christ as my personal savior. That faith is based on the man who lived during this history and in this geography, who resurrected from death, and offers salvation from sins to each of us who receives him into our lives.

    @DMG, concerning historical prophecies Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled:
    Isaiah 7:14 & Isaiah 8:8, 10 fulfilled in Matthew 1:18-23
    Micah 5:2 fulfilled in Matthew 2:1-6
    Hosea 11:1 fulfilled in Matthew 2:13-15
    Jeremiah 31:15 fulfilled in Matthew 2:16-18
    Isaiah 40:3 fulfilled in Matthew 3:1-3
    Isaiah 9:1-2 fulfilled in Matthew 4:12-17
    Isaiah 53:4 fulfilled in Matthew 8:14-17
    Malachi 3:1 fulfilled in Matthew 11:7-10
    Isaiah 42:1-3 fulfilled in Matthew 12:15-21
    Isaiah 6:9-10 fulfilled in Matthew 13:10-15
    Psalm 78:2 fulfilled in Matthew 13:34-35
    Isaiah 29:13, Ezekiel 33:31 fulfilled in Matthew 15:1-9
    Zachariah 9:9, Isaiah 62:11 fulfilled in Matthew 21:1-11
    Psalm 8:2 fulfilled in Matthew 21:14-16
    Psalm 118:22-23 fulfilled in Matthew 21:33-42
    Zechariah 11:13 fulfilled in Matthew 27:3-10
    This serves as a small sampling of the historical prophecies of the Tanakh-OT which were specifically fulfilled in Matthew’s Gospel to the Jewish community.
    Just as the Jewish Rabbis await the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant prophecies, so does the Christian community. The serious problem of the bloody sacrifice for permanent atonement for sins was accomplished in the prophecies relating to that part of the Messiah’s mission.
    It is my earnest prayer that The Bobinator & DMG will reconsider Jesus of Nazareth for your personal savior from sins & receive him into your lives. God bless you both.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Magic

      WayneVA,

      Don't you think that 'Matthew' (or whoever wrote that book) read the OT? These 'fulfillments' could very well have been purposely added to the story to give it some oomph.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Nance

      AMEN

      March 25, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Kevin

      If the Gospel of Matthew had been falsified to fulfill OT prophecies, the original readers would have known and the book would have not been accepted as factual.

      March 26, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  13. DD

    She was indeed a mensch. And had no tattoos.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  14. François Akel

    quoting E.Taylor as saying: ‘I felt terribly sorry for the suffering of the Jews during the war'; 6 millions jews were killed, it's true, but what about the 94 million non-jews who were killed as well?????

    March 25, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Sam

      Your numbers are more than a little off.

      March 25, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Astrian

      Yeah. Agree with you, François Akel. I don't know the exact numbers, but there ARE millions and millions non-jews killed during the war (and also NOT during the war). Did Ms. Taylor feel sorry for them???

      March 30, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  15. Henry Kravitz

    We must be proud of her legacy!

    March 25, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  16. David Band Esquire Sarasota

    We are one people!

    March 25, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  17. David Band Esquire Sarasota

    We need to recognize good people come in all faiths.

    March 25, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  18. David Band Esquire Sarasota

    Good people come in all faiths and races.

    March 25, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  19. richunix

    To her family on the loss of: Elisheba Rachel Taylor

    "Ha-Makom yinaklem othka b'tokh sh'ahr avalei Tzion v'Yerushalayim."

    English; " May the Almighty comfort you among the mouners of Zion and Jerusalem"

    Shabbat Shalom

    March 25, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  20. bigtea

    I fail to understand why this is newsworthy. To my knowledge I've never seen CNN mention a word, much less write an article, about a celebrity being baptized as a Christian.

    March 25, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • MW

      It is because she decided to change faiths. It is rare that people go from Christianity to Judaism, because Judaism is not centered on recruit members like the Christianity.

      March 25, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • Izzisgirl

      It's hardly "rare" for people to go from Christianity to Judaism.

      March 26, 2011 at 8:48 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.