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:

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 fuck off!”

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:

[The] ceremony took place in the chapel of Temple Israel in the presence of Convert Taylor’s parents. Facing the open Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Scrolls, she answered the ritual questions put to her by Rabbi Nussbaum. Among them: “Do you promise to cast in your lot with the people of Israel amid all circumstances and conditions?” “Do you agree to rear your future children according to the Jewish faith?”

Then 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].”

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.

Read more about Liz as a rabbi remembers her in Tales from the Jewish Crypt