Liz Taylor and Richard Burton fought over everything: Even who was more Jewish!
Having seen all the sultry, sabra-like photos of her as a young actress, I always assumed that Elizabeth Taylor was just another Jewish star who'd changed her name so she could more easily cross over into Middle America, sort of like John Garfield, whose real name was Jacob Garfinkle. But as noted in this fun post from the Jewish Journal's Danielle Berrin, Taylor was raised a Christian Scientist, only converting to Judaism at age 27.
Judging from my own family's firm embrace of all the women who've married into our clan and adopted the religion, Jews sometimes value converts more than the original article, which might explain all the excitement over Chelsea Clinton marrying into the faith, not to mention the undying media fascination over the news that Madonna had been regularly studying with a Kabbalah Centre rabbi. According to "Furious Love," the new book about Taylor and Richard Burton's stormy marriage, the famous couple even quarreled over who was more Jewish, a neat trick since Burton was Welsh, not exactly a place where you can find a temple on every block.
According to a passage that Berrin quotes from from the book: "Burton had referred to the Welsh as 'the Jews of Britain', a comment on their self-identity as the outsiders of the United Kingdom. '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 [buzz] off!' "
Showbiz folk have always assumed that Taylor's conversion to Judaism was motivated by her marriage to showman Mike Todd, the grandson of a Polish rabbi who'd also changed his name, from Avrom Goldbogen. But in a book she wrote, Taylor insisted her conversion -- in 1959 -- had nothing to do with either her past marriage to Todd or her upcoming marriage to Eddie Fisher, who was also Jewish. She said: "It was something I had wanted to do for a long time." The conversion was such a big deal that even Time magazine ran a story on the event, with detailed play-by-play of the conversion ritual at Temple Israel in Hollywood.Time reported that Taylor prepared for the conversion by faithfully reading a curriculum of Jewish texts, including such weighty fare as "A History of the Jews" by Abram Leon Sachar.
I come from a family of Southern Jews, who are Jews in sort of the same way that Richard Burton was -- as cultural outsiders. But Taylor has been so feisty over the years, and generous with her friendships, that I have to put her in the Jewish Hall of Fame, right up there with the deity that all Jewish men worship, whether they are religious or not: Sandy Koufax.
Photo: Elizabeth Taylor watching her fiance, Eddie Fisher, on stage at the Tropicana in Las Vegas in 1959. Credit: John Bryson / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images