By Steven Philp
On April 6, 1959 Time Magazine reported the birth “of the most famous and perhaps most beautiful baby,” a Jewish girl named Elishaba Rachel Taylor. The prior week marked the conversion—or “birth”—of the 27-year-old actress Elizabeth Taylor to the Jewish faith, following six months of study under the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel in Hollywood, CA. Over fifty years later, we mourn the passing of a screen legend, AIDS activist, and proud member of our faith community. Or do we? In an article posted on the Jewish-interest blog Jewlicious, Taylor’s commitment to her faith is skimmed over in favor of details about her multiple marriages and celebrity rabbi. The article ends, “Rest in peace Liz, and when you get to Kaballah [sic] Center heaven, say hi to Marilyn and Sammy.”
The reference to the center is a jab at Taylor’s faith. The Kabbalah Centre—located near the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles, CA—has been embroiled in controversy since its genesis in 1965. Attracting A-list celebrities like Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, the center is at best tolerated as an idiosyncratic take on Jewish mysticism and at worst—as detailed in a BBC article from 2005—“an opportunist offshoot of the faith with charismatic leaders who try to attract the rich and the vulnerable with the promise of health, wealth and happiness.” To be associated with the Centre is to have the authenticity of your Jewish faith questioned, if not dismissed entirely.
The irony of the Jewlicious article is that Taylor’s association with the Kabbalah Centre is not well-documented. In a survey of Taylor’s commitment to the Jewish faith, an article posted to CNN claims that “Taylor had been a supporter of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles.” Yet the Jewish Journal obituary it cites as the source for this information contains no mention of her involvement, or Jewish mysticism. What it does detail is a lifetime of service to the Jewish community—through her support of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, her participation in the 1981 documentary “Genocide: The Story of the Holocaust,” and her Israel activism—that shows a deep commitment to her adopted faith.
The Jewlicious article reveals a common bias against the Jewish convert, pegging them as somehow less authentic than those born in to our community. The idea of a “Kaballah Center heaven”—home to those A-list celebrities who pandered with Judaism—may have been intended as a light-hearted joke, and perhaps struck some readers as humorous, but it reinforces the stereotype that the Jew-by-Choice can never truly be genuine to the faith. Yet Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Elizabeth Taylor—each having converted before the foundation of the Kabbalah Centre—all demonstrated indisputable chutzpah in their faith commitment. In an article written by Time shortly after Davis’ conversion, he is quoted as saying:
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.
Similarly, the decision to convert for Taylor—according to Time—was “no sudden shift.” Nor did she abandon her faith commitments after conversion, devoting her time and money to supporting Israel, fighting against AIDS, and advocating for equal rights for the LGBT community. Elizabeth Taylor is not destined for “Kaballah Center heaven.” She has a spot reserved next to all other great Jews, born or by choice.