August 16, 2010
Liz Taylor and her Jewish audacity
In the new book, Furious Love, about the fervent, stormy romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that has been optioned for film, the lovers have a quarrel about Judaism.
In one scene, the joint biography by Sam Kashner, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and Nancy Schoenberger, an author, depicts Taylor and Burton having one of their usual, theatrical spats—over who was more “Jewish.”
The authors write:
Taylor, the irreverent and dazzling actress was raised a Christian scientist, but converted to Judaism at age 27. Though some say the decision was motivated by marriage to her third husband, Mike Todd—born Avrom Goldbogen, the grandson of a Polish rabbi, according to Time Magazine—Taylor famously denied it, insisting she had always been interested in Judaism. In her book, Elizabeth Takes Off, Taylor tried to set the record straight, and according to Wikipedia wrote: “[Conversion to Judaism] had absolutely nothing to do with my past marriage to Mike [Todd] or my upcoming marriage to Eddie Fisher, both of whom were Jewish. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time.”
Divas do things on their own terms. When she finally decided to convert, Taylor did so at Temple Israel of Hollywood, under the tutelage of then-rabbi Max Nussbaum. According to Time, who reported on Taylor’s conversion in April 1959, Rabbi Nussbaum developed a special curriculum for the actress that included: the Bible, and the books—A History of the Jews, by Abram Leon Sachar, What Is a Jew?, by Morris Kertzer, and Basic Judaism, by Milton Steinberg. Afterwards, “[T]hey discussed the ancient traditions and modern problems of the people of Israel,” Time reported.
At her conversion ceremony, Taylor was given the Hebrew name Elisheba Rachel Taylor (Elisheba being the Hebrew version of Elizabeth and Rachel being the actress’s biblical heroine). Time described the ritual in detail:
Taylor channeled her defiant Jewish spirit into almost everything - even her marriage. Director Mike Nichols is reportedly attached to direct Furious Love, the movie—which should be interesting since Nichols directed Taylor and Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, the 1966 film that the public came to view as a window into the couple’s real marriage. For those who haven’t seen the film—first of all, you should—but just in case, this line from the New York Times review of the book aptly sums up their relationship: “In their prime, the Burtons made ‘married love’ seem ‘glamorous and sexy,’ ‘even dangerous,’ the authors write. They also made it seem deranged and codependent,” Times writer Ada Calhoun notes. “There’s a lesson here for couples: marriage doesn’t have to be a partnership of equals. It can be a bodice-ripping, booze-soaked, jewel-bedecked brawl that survives even death.”
Imagine reading that on your ketubah.