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Interfaith Celebrities: Elizabeth Taylor, Casey Abrams, Mildred Pierce, and more!

March 29, 2011

On Elizabeth Taylor

As you no doubt have heard, Elizabeth Taylor died on March 23, at age 79. Here are just a few things about her connection to Judaism — not found in most standard obituaries.

By MachoCarioca [Public domain, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)].

It is often incorrectly reported that Taylor converted to Judaism around the time that she married (1957) her third husband, Oscar winning film producer Mike Todd, who was Jewish. This is not true. Taylor, who was raised in the Christian Science faith, married Todd in a civil ceremony and did not convert to Judaism during their marriage. After Todd's death in a plane crash (1958), Taylor was "comforted" by Todd's good friend, Jewish singer Eddie Fisher. He left his wife, Protestant singer Debbie Reynolds, for Taylor, which created a huge scandal. In one of his memoirs, Fisher wrote that Taylor told him that she told Todd that she would be happy to convert to Judaism. Todd, Fisher wrote, told Taylor that it didn't matter to him. Fisher added that he told Taylor the same thing; Taylor shouldn't convert to Judaism just to please him.

Nonetheless, Fisher wrote, Taylor sought out a Los Angeles rabbi without telling Fisher and took a nine-month course of instruction in Judaism. Fisher writes that he didn't even know that Taylor was in the process of converting until almost the day of the conversion ceremony. It was Fisher's sense (and the sense of most of Taylor's biographers) that Taylor converted mostly as a tribute to the memory of Mike Todd. She also felt a strong affinity for the Jewish people, according to several biographers.

Taylor and Fisher married on May 12, 1959 in a double ring ceremony at Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas.

Although there's little evidence to support that, after her conversion, Taylor was ever a practicing, religious Jew, she was a big supporter of Jewish and Israeli charities and causes. She also continued to identify as Jewish, as this 2001 exchange with CNN's Larry King makes clear.

King asked her about the diamond ring she was wearing. She replied:

TAYLOR: D-flawless, brilliant, it has no baddies in it. It is a perfect ring. It is called — there's a story behind it — it's called the Krupp ring, and it was owned by the Vera Krupp, the German — the munitions people who helped knock off millions of Jews. And when it was up for auction, I thought how poetic that would be if a nice little Jewish girl like me ended up with it. So Richard got it for me.

KING: That is right. You did convert. You are Jewish, are you not?

TAYLOR: I am, I am.

As many obituaries have pointed out, next to her film career, Taylor's most important legacy is her incredible work in fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS. She was one of the first major celebrities to publicly push for funding for HIV/AIDS research and treatment for those living with the disease. She was also the founding (1984) International Chairman of AMFAR (the American Foundation for Aids Research.) Click here for Taylor's history of involvement with this pioneering organization.

Their tribute begins:

"I will not be silenced and I will not give up and I will not be ignored." With these words, Elizabeth Taylor lent her voice to the voiceless, her iconic image to those who had previously been invisible, and her compassion and determination to a cause many others had shunned: the fight against HIV/AIDS. Her willingness to speak out against apathy and silence in the early, frightening days of the epidemic and her instinctive sympathy for those in need earned her a place as one of the most influential advocates for people living with HIV in the U.S. and around the world."

Interestingly enough, the other major figure in the founding of AMFAR was Dr. Mathilde Krim, another Jew-by-choice. These two women, who both had incredible careers before the AIDS epidemic, made a formidable pair and often appeared together in public forums, like the Larry King Live.

Yes, it is most likely just a coincidence that two of the most important figures in AMFAR's history chose to convert to Judaism. Still, I think that one could say that the same empathy for the "other" that motivated these women to identify with and join a historically oppressed minority (the Jewish people) also lead them to empathize with and help the victims of the AIDS epidemic.

The Partial "411" on Casey Abrams

 

As I write this, Casey Abrams, 20, is one of 11 finalists in this year's American Idol competition. Pundits have rated him as having a very good chance of winning the contest if he stays healthy. (He suffers from ulcerative colitis.)

Casey Abrams plays stand-up bass and sings "Georgia on My Mind" in this Idol performance.

Speculation that Abrams is Jewish has run high since a 2008 student short (fictional) film appeared online. In it, Abrams plays a skull cap wearing Jewish guy who works at a Jewish delicatessen. This Jewish deli clerk is sweet on a young, Jewish woman who also works at the deli. She upsets the clerk when she tells him that she is sweet on another guy, who happens to be Mormon.

My friend, Gail Zimmerman, the arts editor of the Detroit Jewish News, knows a famous Jewish rock producer who's working with Idol contestants. At her request, this producer asked Abrams if he is Jewish. Abrams replied that his father, a California-based film professor, is Jewish. Abrams added that his mother is not Jewish. The producer did not inquire further into Abrams' religious upbringing.

In Case You Are Curious

Recently, actor Charlie Sheen said his mother is "Jewish." Also, a British tabloid claimed that designer John Galliano was "obsessed with the possibility" that he had Jewish roots. My response to Sheen's claim, the British tabloid, and more can be found in my long article here:

Late on March 10, I was made aware of an on-line radio/video interview with Charlie Sheen's brother, actor Emilio Estevez and a Catholic priest that took place last April.

Estevez says in the interview that there was a religious conflict between his parents—his father (Martin) is a Catholic and his mother (Janet) is a Southern Baptist—and they couldn't agree how to raise the kids—so they were not really raised in any faith (although Estevez says he is now quite close to fully embracing Catholicism).

The main news, of course, is that Estevez is saying that his mother is Southern Baptist.

So much for Charlie Sheen's claim that she is "Jewish."

Mildred Pierce Returns

The 1945 film, Mildred Pierce, with Joan Crawford in the title role, was a huge hit. It stands out as one of the only films of its era in which the heroine was both a divorcee and a businesswoman. It was based on a 1941 novel by James M. Cain, an Irish American writer famous for his "hardboiled" crime novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Pierce, a middle class Los Angeles housewife with two young daughters, faces a crisis during the Great Depression. Her husband, pretty indolent in the best of times, cannot find a job, and, on top of that, cheats on her. She separates from her husband and takes the only job she can find: a waitress job at a diner. Aided by her salty talking friend, Ida, she builds a small chain of successful restaurants from scratch.

By MachoCarioca [Public domain, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)].

Pierce's growing wealth allows her to give her older daughter, Veda, almost anything she wants. But Veda, an ungrateful monster, thinks her mother is "low class" and her work "déclassé."

A murder opens the film and the story is largely told in one long flashback; showing us, in pretty straight chronological order, the dramatic events in Pierce's life that preceded the murder.

The original 1945 film was brilliantly paced by Jewish director Michael Curtiz. Curtiz, who won an Oscar for directing Casablanca, also directed the 1954 Christmas movie, White Christmas. I profiled him in connection with a special article I wrote for InterfaithFamily.com about Christmas movies with a lot of "Jewish connections".

HBO has remade Mildred Pierce in a five part miniseries that began Sunday, March 27 and runs each successive Sunday through April 10. If you are an HBO subscriber, you will have tons of chances to catch an encore showing of the first and other episodes. Later in the year, the series will also come out on DVD.

Kate Winslet stars as Pierce and Mare Winningham plays Ida. Playing Veda is Evan Rachel Wood. The talented cast includes Guy Pearce (Hollywood Confidential) and recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo.

As previously noted in this column, Wood's mother is a Jew-by-choice and her father is not Jewish. Wood identifies as Jewish.

Winningham is also a Jew-by-choice. Almost by chance, she discovered that Judaism was the spiritual path for her and has been quite devout for about a decade.

The HBO miniseries is directed by Todd Haynes, an openly gay filmmaker who is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. His most recent feature film, I'm Not There (2007), was an imaginative biopic inspired by the life of Bob Dylan, the famous Jewish singer/songwriter.

Trailer from the HBO version of Mildred Pierce.

Haynes' first mainstream film, Far From Heaven (2003), was, like Mildred Pierce, a remake of a Hollywood melodrama (All That Heaven Allows, 1955) with an interesting, mature mother as its central character. All That Heaven Allows was about the romance of a rich widow and a free-spirited, much younger, working class gardener.

The romances in Haynes' remake (also set in the 1950s) are more "shocking" and could not have been in a 50s Hollywood film. In Far From Heaven, the rich, white woman is not a widow. However, her marriage effectively ends when she discovers her husband is gay and that he cannot stop himself from having gay extra-marital affairs. His infidelity prompts her to act on her attraction to the family's gardener, an African-American man. Far From Heaven got very good reviews.

Haynes says that his version of Mildred Pierce will be truer to the 1941 novel than the 1945 film, and will be far more explicit in its depiction of the sexual escapades of many of the people in Pierce's life, including her daughter, Veda.

I gather, from bits and pieces of interviews, that Haynes is secular. In 2003, he discussed his Jewish cultural background at some length when the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles did a joint interview with Haynes and top, Jewish film composer Elmer Bernstein. They became friends while working together on Far From Heaven. The pair discovered that Bernstein's father and Haynes' Jewish grandfather were progressive leftist activists. Sadly, Bernstein died in 2004, age 82.

Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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