This Day in Jewish History

1959: Elizabeth Taylor Converts to Judaism

The film icon became a public advocate of Jewish causes, once going so far as to offer to take the place of the Israeli hostages of the Air France flight hijacked to Uganda.

Reuters

On March 27, 1959, 27-year-old film star Elizabeth Taylor underwent conversion to Judaism in a ceremony at Temple Israel in Hollywood, California. The ceremony was the end of a nine-month process undertaken by Taylor under the supervision of Reform Rabbi Max Nussbaum.

Although it is commonly thought the British-born star converted to marry a Jewish man, the truth is, Taylor began the process after the death of her third husband, Michael Todd, and nearly a year before her marriage to singer Eddie Fisher. Both men were Jews.

Taylor was born February 27, 1932, in London, to two American parents from Kansas who were living in the United Kingdom. Her father, an art dealer, and mother, a former stage actress raised her as a Christian Scientist. Shortly before the start of World War II, the family returned to the United States and settled in Los Angeles.

There, family friends urged the parents to arrange a screen test for their unusually beautiful daughter with the thick eyelashes and violet eyes. Taylor’s mother was initially reluctant to see her daughter relinquish her childhood to the life of a professional actress. But when Taylor’s career began to take off and she expressed a desire to give it up and return to a normal life, her mother supposedly told her that she had a responsibility to her family and the world to continue with her work.

In 1943, after a less than a year with Universal Studios, Taylor was fired and moved to MGM, the glamorous studio that claimed to have “more stars than there are in heaven.” Her first hit came in 1944 with “National Velvet,” which led to a long-term contract with the studio for the 12-year-old. She worked throughout the decade, by the end of which she was playing adult roles, most notably in “Father of the Bride,” in 1950 and “A Place in the Sun,” which she began filming in 1949.

That period coincided with Taylor’s first marriage, a short-lived union with Conrad “Nicky” Hilton of the hotel family. With her second husband, actor Michael Wilding, whom she was married to from 1952 to 1957, Taylor had two children. Between 1957 and 1960, she was nominated for four times for an Academy Award for Best Actress, winning the Oscar finally for “Butterfield 8.”

AP

Taylor’s third marriage was to film producer and entrepreneur Mike Todd, who had been born Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen to Jewish immigrants from Poland. The couple was married in February 1957, in a small civil ceremony in Acapulco, Mexico, with their best friends Eddie Fisher and his wife Debbie Reynolds among the few in attendance. A newspaper account said they had planned to follow the civil vows with a Jewish ceremony but were unable to find a rabbi in the vicinity.

Thirteen months later, Todd was killed when his private plane crashed in bad weather in New Mexico in 1958. He and Taylor had one child, a girl.

It was apparently in the period following her husband’s death that Taylor decided to convert. Rabbi Nussbaum, a Bukovina (Romania)-born Holocaust survivor, had her attend services over the course of a year and assigned her a number of secondary sources about Judaism to read, including Milton Steinberg’s “What Is Judaism” and Abram Leon Sachar’s “History of the Jews.” She took the Hebrew name Elisheba Rachel.

Two months later, on May 12, 1959, Nussbaum performed the marriage ceremony of Taylor and Eddie Fisher, in Las Vegas. The couple had begun their relationship in the wake of Todd’s death, and it caused a very public scandal, considering that it led to the dissolution of Fisher’s marriage to actress Debbie Reynolds. Fisher and Taylor were together until 1964, when she divorced him and married Richard Burton, whom she had met during the making of “Cleopatra” (1963), in which she played the title role and he portrayed her lover Mark Antony. (Taylor and Burton were married and divorced twice; she married and divorced two more times after him.)

Egypt banned her from filming locations for “Cleopatra” in 1962, announcing that “Miss Taylor will not be allowed to come to Egypt because she has adopted the Jewish faith and supports Israeli causes.” The ban was lifted after the film was completed and Egyptian officials decided it would be good for the country’s image.

Many of Taylor’s more than 50 biographers have devoted copious attention to the question of her connection to Judaism. One of them, Kitty Kelley, quoted her as explaining her feelings in the following manner: ““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.”

There is certainly little evidence that Taylor became a traditionally pious Jew or even a regular attendee at her Reform synagogue. It has even been reported that she continued to wear a cross for much of her life. However, Taylor identified as a Jew and became involved with very public support for Israel and a variety of Jewish organizations.

When Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and helped Israeli Air France passengers in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, Taylor approached the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Simcha Dinitz, and offered to take the place of the hostages. Dinitz later revealed that he politely turned down the offer but told the star that “the Jewish people will always remember it.”

Taylor visited Israel a number of times, publicly condemned the UN General Assembly’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution of 1975, raised money for Israel Bonds and the Jewish National Fund and served as the narrator for a Simon Wiesenthal Center film about the Holocaust, among many other public actions that linked her to Jewish causes.

Elizabeth Taylor died on March 23, 2011, at the age of 79. She was buried in a multi-denominational ceremony, presided over by Rabbi Jerry Cutler of the self-styled “unorthodox” Creative Arts Temple in Los Angeles. At Taylor’s request, the ceremony began 15 minutes later than its scheduled starting time in accordance with her desire to be late to her own funeral.