On Dame Elizabeth Taylor z”l and Conversion

Yesterday, the world lost an actress, an activist and a humanitarian when [url=http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/03/23/3086529/the-eulogizer-oscar-award-winning-actress-prominent-pulpit-rabbi]Elizabeth[/url] [url=http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/movies/elizabeth-taylor-obituary.html?_r=1]Taylor[/url] died, at age 79.

She was really one of the first people in the public eye to take on the AIDS epidemic and embrace those living with HIV and AIDS. She took some of the fear away, and led a fight that still survives.

[quote]Late in life she became a social activist. After her friend Rock Hudson died, she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research and helped raise money for it. In 1997, she said, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”[/quote]

She was a really remarkable woman.

[quote]Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS. In February 1997, she celebrated her 65th birthday at a party that was a benefit for AIDS research. After the party Ms. Taylor entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an operation on a brain tumor. (From the [i]NYTimes[/i] obit.)[/quote]

Elizabeth Taylor also [url=http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0101/15/lkl.00.html:3mpgq71u]converted to Judaism[/url] over 50 years ago, sometime between her marriage to [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Todd]Mike Todd[/url] and wedding [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddie_Fisher_%28singer%29]Eddie Fisher[/url]*. Fisher was Jewish, so it’s possible that she converted to marry him. 

Which got me thinking: How common were conversions circa 1958/1959?

In the book of Ruth, Naomi tried to get Ruth to go back to her own people 3 times before Ruth became a part of the Hebrew people. As a result, some rabbis “reject” a potential convert three times before discussing conversion with them. In 1950s Hollywood, did Taylor have to do that? And how did that take less than a year?

Today, it’s common for conversion to take at least a year (at least two years in many cases). And for many individuals it’s an even longer process than that, between deciding to explore Judaism, talking with a rabbi, taking conversion classes, and finally taking the dip in the mikvah (or otherwise completing the process). How did Dame Elizabeth convert in under a year? Was that the norm back then?

*This got the office excited, so I’ve got to include a footnote: Eddie Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, who wasn’t Jewish. Together, they had two children: [url=http://www.interfaithfamily.com/arts_and_entertainment/popular_culture/Interfaith_Celebrities_Jewish_Women_of_Black_Swan_and_Carrie_Fishers_Wishful_Drinking.shtml]Carrie[/url] and Todd (quite probably named after Elizabeth’s husband, Mike Todd, who died around the time of Todd’s birth). Eddie ended his marriage to Debbie to marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth is Carrie’s step-mother (maybe). But more importantly: Princess Leia is from an interfaith family!

Benjamin Maron

Benjamin Maron is the former Director of Content and Editorial Resources for 18Doors.


Author: Benjamin Maron