America's best newspapers--The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The L.A. Times--all wrote richly detailed obituaries for Elizabeth Taylor, the Hollywood icon who died of heart failure this week, at 79. But no matter how richly detailed, every single one of these papers didn't say a word about Taylor's conversion to Judaism when she was 27. Why?
It's a question worth asking, especially since all the obituarites spent so much time on Taylor's outsized, befuddling, and utterly fascinating personal life: her eight marriages, twice to Richard Burton; her weight issues, her drug use; her close friendships with many gay AIDS actors, and her later AIDS-awareness campaigns. To the papers' credit, they all do a fine job describing the main reason why these personal things matter in the first place--she was a phenomenal actress, a woman whose thespian range defied her utter lack of formal training. A natural, you'd say.
So to make up for the paucity of Jewish bits in the obits, I'll summarize: she converted in 1959, at 27, shortly before marrying her third husband, Mike Todd. Todd was Jewish, born Avram Goldbogen and the grandson of a Polish rabbi. But Taylor, despite being raised a Christian scientist, ferociously denied converting to Judaism solely for the sake of marriage. In her autobiography, Elizabeth Takes Off, she wrote that her conversion "had absolutely nothing to do with my past marriage to Mike [Todd] or my upcoming marriage to Eddie Fischer [her fourth husband], both of whom were Jewish." She went on, "It was something I wanted to do for a long time."
Her conversion process was no joke either. In fact, the books her L.A. rabbi, Max Nussbaum, had her read as part of the conversion I think every Jew should read--A History of Judaism by Abram Leon Sachar; What Is a Jew? by Morris Kertzer; and my personal favorite, Milton Steinberg's Basic Judaism. She never became religous, to be sure, but she expressed her commitment to a Jewish life in other ways.
She was an ardent supporter of Israel, making a defiant fundraising tour to benefit the Jewish state in the 1970s, at a time when Arab countries were boycotting the state. She reportedly offered herself as a hostage in place of the 100 French citizens on board the flight hijacked in Uganda, in 1976. And she was a longtime supporter of the Kabbalah Center in L.A.
Oh, and she once got into a heated argument with Richard Burton, a Welsh Christian, about the whole Jewish thing too. In the joint Burton-Taylor biography Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, they describe the marrital spat this way:
Burton had referred to the Welsh as “the Jews of Britain”, a comment on their self-identity as the outsiders of the United Kingdom.
“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 fuck off!”
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