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Elizabeth Taylor's Conversion to Judaism, Her Devotion to Israel, and other Famous Converts Elizabeth Taylor Sketch

ELIZABETH TAYLOR’S CONVERSION TO JUDAISM

Elizabeth Taylor must have found something that rang true for her when she took the Conversion Oath at Hollywood’s Temple Israel on that spring day in March, 1959. Twenty seven year old Elizabeth Taylor, who was raised a Christian Scientist, took the Hebrew name of Elisheba Rachel and with that intention, converted to Judaism.

Taylor’s conversion came one year after the death of her third husband, Mike Todd (born Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen) following a tragic airplane crash, and just a few months before the star’s upcoming marriage to Eddie Fisher. The decision was not without criticism, since many people questioned her impetus to convert. Taylor always stood firm and cited that the choice was a serious undertaking of her own and not a reflection of either marriage to Todd or Fisher.

In 1959, Time Magazine reported that Elizabeth Taylor studied for about six months with the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum, a Holocaust survivor connected with the Judaism’s Reform movement, and with Hollywood’s Temple Israel. According to Benjamin Ivry of The Forward, Nussbaum’s assigned reading to Taylor included Abram Leon Sachar’s History of Jews, Morris N. Kertzer’s What is a Jew and Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism, along with the Bible. In that time, Taylor studied Jewish tradition and engaged in conversation about the struggles of Israel.

At her conversion ceremony Elisheba Rachel Taylor repeated the pledge:

"I, of my own free will, seek the fellowship of Israel . . . I believe that God is One, Almighty, All-Wise and Most Holy . . . I promise that I shall endeavor to live, as far as it is in my power, in accordance with the ideals of Jewish life . . . Most fervently, therefore, do I herewith pronounce the Jewish confession of faith: Shma yisroel adonoy elohenu adonoy echod [Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One]. Boruch shem kvod malchuso I'olom voed [Praised be his name whose glorious kingdom is for ever and ever]."

Elizabeth Taylor died on March 23, 2011 at age 79. Her Jewish identity was governed not only her choices as an actress but also her humanitarian efforts around the world throughout her lifetime.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR AND HER DEVOTION TO ISRAEL AND THE JEWISH PEOPLE

Following the news of Elizabeth Taylor’s passing, The JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), a global Jewish news service, released a collection of archived stories about the icon. In the collections, numerous articles abound of her devotion and support of Israel.

  • 1959 - A $100,000 purchase in Israel bonds prompted an Arab ban of her films.

  • 1957 -Elizabeth Taylor joined Jewish and non-Jewish actors in London to help raise $840,000 for Israel.

  • 1961 - Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher sang a Hebrew duet in Moscow, surprising US servicemen.

  • 1962 - Elizabeth Taylor and her film crew were barred from entering Egypt to complete the film, “Cleopatra” because she was Jewish and supportive of Israeli causes. According to the JTA archive, “Gen. Essam Elmasri, head of the Cairo regional bureau of the Israel Boycott Office, said in the Egyptian capital that Miss Taylor will not be allowed to come to Egypt because she has adopted the Jewish faith and supports Israeli causes.”

  • 1967 - Elizabeth Taylor cancelled a trip to Moscow over the USSR's condemnation of Israel's role in the Six Day War.

  • 1975 - Elizabeth Taylor was one of 60 signatories of a telegram addressed to ex-Nazi UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim against the United Nations Anti-Zionist Resolution.

  • 1976 - It was revealed in 1977 by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz, that Elizabeth Taylor offered to swap herself for the 103 Jewish and Israeli hostages taken from an Air France plane by Palestinian and German terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. In this frightening hostage crisis, the terrorists separated the Jewish passengers from the non-Jews aboard the plane and released most of the non-Jewish passengers. Israeli commandos stormed the airport and rescued the hostages. Jonathan Netanyahu, the late brother of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, led the mission and was shot dead - the only death during the rescue operation. In an ABC movie made that year, “Victory at Entebbe,” Elizabeth Taylor played one of the hostages.

  • 1976 - Elizabeth Taylor visited Israel often and met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

  • 1981 - Elizabeth Taylor was one of the narrators of “Genocide,” a documentary about the Holocaust that went on to win a 1981 Academy Award. Her husband, Senator John Warner, gave her the script to read on behalf of Rabbi Hier, Director of the Wisenthal Center. According to John Warner, Taylor read the script from Friday to Sunday night and couldn't stop crying. She narrated the film without compensation.

  • 1983 - Elizabeth Taylor met with Israel’s first Likud Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.

  • 1987 - Elizabeth Taylor signed an appeal launched by a Jewish feminist magazine, Lillith, to free Soviet refusenik Ida Nudel.

In 1981, biographer Kitty Kelly wrote the book, Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star. She quoted Elizabeth 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.”

The Zionist Organization of America, who previously awarded Elizabeth Taylor with ZOA’s Distinguished Louis D. Brandeis Award, issued a press release upon her death and paid tribute to her as an ardent Zionist.

MARILYN MONROE, SAMMY DAVIS, JR., AND IVANKA TRUMP CONVERTED TO JUDAISM

Marilyn Monroe – In June 1956, Monroe converted to Judaism and married famed playwright Arthur Miller on June 29th in a quiet ceremony.

Sammy Davis, Jr. – Davis was born to a Catholic mother and Protestant father. In November 19, 1954, he nearly died in a car accident where he lost his left eye. During his time in the hospital, Davis had plenty time for conversation and reflection. There were discussions with his friend Eddie Cantor about the similarities between the Jewish and black culture that resonated with him. Davis also spent time talking at length with the rabbi at the hospital. Looking back, the accident that almost took his life would come to represent a turning point for the song and dance man. His choice to convert to Judaism would followed several years later. The star would sum up his feelings about how he became a Jew in a February issue of Ebony Magazine as reported by Time magazine:

"I wanted to become part of a 5,000-year history and hold onto something not just material, which would give me that inner strength to turn the other cheek. Jews have become strong over their thousands of years of oppression, and I wanted to become part of that strength. As a Negro, I felt emotionally tied to Judaism. Certainly the background of my people and their history cannot be compared to that of Judaism, but the same oppression and obstacles thrown in our way were overcome by a greater force than mere tenacity ... I wanted to become a Jew because Judaism held an honesty and spiritual peace that was lacking in my personal makeup . . . "I became a Jew because I was ready and willing to understand the plight of a people who fought for thousands of years for a homeland, giving their lives and bodies, and finally gaining that homeland."

After his conversion, Sammy Davis, Jr. refused to work on the most solemn day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. Below is an anecdote when Davis refused to work on Yom Kippur during the filming of the movie "Porgy and Bess."

The director of the movie got angry and called the legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn immediately called Sammy and wanted to know if it was true about his refusing to work. Sammy said that, as a Jew he could not work on the Day of Atonement. There was silence for a moment, with Goldwyn no doubt noting that stopping production would cost $30,000, a large sum then. Finally, Goldwyn (who was also Jewish) said, "Bless you." Production on the film was stopped for Yom Kippur.

Ivanka Trump – The former model and current vice president of real estate development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization converted to Judaism in July 2009 , taking the name Yael. Her decision to convert, after studying with Rabbi Elie Weinstock from the Modern Orthodox Ramaz School, was in honor of her relationship with boyfriend Jared Kushner, a Jewish businessman whom she subsequently married in an Orthodox marriage ceremony officiated by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. In January 2011, the couple announced they were expecting their first child together.

ELVIS PRESLEY AND HIS JEWISH ROOTS

Elvis Presley learned that he was Jewish by way of way of maternal descent – his mother was half Jewish and half Indian. While Presley did not embrace his Jewish birthright until years later, details of his mother’s heritage was recounted in the book, “Elvis and Gladys,” by historian and biographer Elaine Dundy. Below are a few interesting excerpts from the book:

..After his mother died, Elvis personally sought to design his beloved mother’s grave site which included a Star of David on Gladys Love Presley's tombstone. The decision was made by him in honor of his Jewish heritage. Something his mother was proud of and acknowledged to Elvis at a very early age.

Later in life, when Elvis discovered the teachings of Judaism, Zen Buddhism and the occult teachings through his hairdresser Larry Geller he became familiar with the Hebrew alphabet and its symbols. From then on part of his on-stage wardrobe throughout most of 1977 Elvis wore a "Chai" necklace. When Charlie Hodge asked Elvis why this particular piece of jewelry was so important, Elvis replied, "I don’t want to miss out on goin' to heaven on a technicality." Note that two letters form Chai, the Hebrew word for 'life.'

OTHER FAMOUS PEOPLE WHO CONVERTED TO JUDAISM

  • Tom Arnold - Actor
  • Elizabeth Banks - Actress
  • Campbell Brown – American television news reporter
  • Kate Capshaw - Actress
  • Connie Chung – American television journalist
  • Jim Croce – Singer songwriter
  • Isla Fisher – Model and actress
  • Mary Hart - American television personality, long-time host of Entertainment Tonight
  • Mathilde Krim - Founder of AmFar
  • Dr. Laura – American radio personality
  • Elliot Maddox - former Major League Baseball Player
  • Anne Meara - Actress