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Elizabeth Taylor died today of congestive heart failure. That seems impossible: Whatever misfortunes befell the glamour queen and Jewish convert over the years, there was never a failure of heart.

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Elizabeth Taylor at home in Beverly Hills, 1957. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Earlier today, I got an email from my husband. It was just a subject line:

“Are you sad about Elizabeth?”

I had no clue what he was talking about. I racked my brain for all the Elizabeths we know. I wondered if something had happened to the queen. Then I clicked over to the New York Times and realized, horribly, that something had. It just wasn’t the queen I’d had in mind.

Elizabeth Taylor is dead. Just typing the sentence strains credulity. It seems the height of unreality that after all she had survived—tumultuous multiple marriages, widowhood, the death of the studio system, public vilification, alcoholism, pill addiction, the undeserved wrath of Joan Rivers, and a shocking list of health problems including but not limited to brain tumors, dysentery, and countless back and bone surgeries, beginning the age of 12 after an accident on the set of National Velvet left her in chronic and crippling pain—she could ever be felled by something so mundane as congestive heart failure.

It sounds like a cliché to say so, but of everything Elizabeth Taylor suffered from, it was never a failure of the heart.

That she was gorgeous beyond all sense was never in doubt. Elizabeth Taylor in her radiant prime makes Angelina Jolie (the tabloid-appointed pretender to her throne) look like a choleric video-game avatar. For all her glamour, guts, and chutzpah, she never quite captured the drag-queen imagination in the same way as compatriots like Joan Crawford or Liza Minnelli. Her beauty simply defies parody; it’s like trying to make fun of an orchid. As for her tremendous talent, the evidence is right there on screen: Her indelible starring roles in legendary films like Giant, A Place in the Sun, Suddenly Last Summer, and best of all, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which also happen to be the film versions of the two plays I love—and, for better or worse, identify with—the most in the world). She was undeniably a legend: Over the next few weeks I’m sure we’ll see a litany of think pieces exploring her cultural significance, her status as an icon, the way she almost single-handedly ushered in our current celebrity-driven age. (I may even write some of them.)

But for now, I prefer to celebrate her heart. Elizabeth Taylor was first and foremost a creature of passion (for which she named a perfume). Her passion for love, her passion for jewels, her passion for people, her passion for life. Whatever she did, she did it her way, and her way was big. She married eight times, twice to the similarly extravagantly natured Richard Burton. She threw herself into AIDS charities when the disease was still unmentionable in most respectable circles. She converted to Judaism just 15 years after the liberation of the death camps and remained committed to Israel and Jewish charities throughout her life. (She and Burton regularly got into booze-fueled screaming matches over who was “more Jewish”—him claiming that the Welsh were “the Jews of Britain”; she countering that she was, in fact, literally Jewish. If the essence of being Jewish is the ability to survive and flourish in the face of inestimable odds, I’d say Taylor was the winner in spades.)

When my grandfather died last year at almost exactly this time, the rabbi at his funeral told a story of an old man standing alone by a dock at the harbor, applauding the ships as they came in from the sea. A little boy asked him why. The old man said: “When a ship sets sail, many people celebrate. But we have no idea of what might befall it on its voyage—it could be shipwrecked, overtaken, used for an evil purpose. Better to celebrate now, when the ship, having weathered many storms, returns home with its job well done.”

Elizabeth Taylor, having weathered many storms and shirked from none, has safely returned to port after an incredible journey at sea. She may have been given an extraordinary face and an extraordinary talent, but her extraordinary, inspiring, tragic, joyful, captivating life was something she did all on her own.

And now that the shock has worn off, I’m going to go somewhere and cry.

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Wow, I didn’t know she was a convert. What a fascinating woman. I love your line “Her beauty simply defies parody; it’s like trying to make fun of an orchid.” It’s so poetic and true what you’ve said about her.

I am also quite sad today. For all of us who were in the trenches in the earliest years of the fight against HIV, Elizabeth was our ally, a little glint of glamour urging us on. She was ornery in her support and she was generous. I will miss her.

Bianca says:

First Jane Russell and now Liz Taylor.

Our last links with the Golden Era of Hollywood have been severed…

Both of them incredible beauties with talent who led lives based on strong principles.

*sad sigh*

May they find peace and – to the rest us – Long Life.

Pete says:

It is very sad. But before we say that this is the end of an era, I would like to remind everyone that another beautiful (Jewish) woman named Lauren Bacall is still right here with us….

All true, all true, but neither Jane Russell nor Betty Bacall (as lovely as they were in their prime) could ever touch Liz Taylor. She’s in the rarefied league with Greta Garbo and maybe Gong Li.

Linda Schiffer says:

ELIZABETH Taylor (for she hated being called ‘Liz”) was beautiful outside because it was not just skin deep beauty … It came from within. When Larry King asked her if she was Jewish, she did not hesitate in her reply to the positive ..”YES I am, I am.”
My theory is you cannot convert to Judaism – you have to be born with a Jewish Soul and Elizabeth (Bette to her friends) was the epitome of the Jewish Soul. Aishet Chayel, Me Nimtzah …. A Woman of Valor who did not always do what was politically or socially acceptable, but who always did what was RIGHT .. and always for others.
Jane Russell never could come close to being anything like the woman Elizabeth was; not in beauty external nor in heart.
We not only lost a legend and an icon … We have lost a Soul of Incredible Depth and Heart Open To All!

Marty Janner says:

This lady was a class act in every which way! Her beauty,and her heart most of all.She had the courage to stand up for her beliefs, when our community was facing the fears of an imagined result of HIV and Aids, she came to the forefront to support those who were afflicted!

We may have forgotten the indignities suffered by those diagnosed with these, doctors were afraid to treat, children were isolated,a loss of interaction among sports participants.

Whether she be a convert to Judaism or not, in my mind she was that special person that comes along, once in a lifetime! May she be remembered as one of the righteous!

lionel says:

“Angelina Jolie (the tabloid-appointed pretender to her throne) look like a choleric video-game avatar.”

That’s a rather unkind statement.

Isn’t that a bit of ‘ the pot calling the kettle black, referring to Joan Rivers and her ‘nastiness….’

This was very beautifully written.
Thank you.

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

Excuse me, Angelina Jolie is a beauty, much less a beauty to be compared with Elizabeth Taylor or Lauren BAcall? Surely you must be joking!

shelly buchanan says:

why’d you call her Liz?
i’ve been sending myself a lotta emails about her (i send them to put what’s important in the header), and i keep calling her “Liz”

justicegirl says:

Beautiful tribute to a beautiful person.

Thank you, Rachel! So beautifully written. You learned your craft well. Must have been in Omaha! Very few other school systems turn out such eloquent writers!

D.K.Milgrim-Heath says:

One Proud Jewish Lady Is Gone
By D.K. Milgrim-Heath©2011
One proud Jewish lady is gone-
But her Jewish legacy still lives on.
Elizabeth Taylor was her name-
A Jewish lady by choice-
Spoke/ stood proudly for the Jewish voice.
Save one person is like saving the rest of the world-
By her charitable works that part of Elizabeth unfurled.
Internationally people gave her all their love –
So many death tributes show much she’s thought of.

Barbara says:

Thank you for a lovely article on my lifelong favorite actress. Even though she left us this week, through the wonderful technology of films, people will be able to enjoy her works and continue to marvel at her unmatched beauty forever. May she rest in peace.

Carrie Delaney says:

Elizabeth Taylor’s life was indeed interesting as she met challenges head on. I enjoyed many of her films and her charitable heart was evident. What meant the most to me was that she died a Jewess and was buried in the fashion of our faith. I found out my Jewish roots in 2000. In 2005, I returned to the faith of my ancestors through conversion. It has been difficult for my mother to understand our heritage as she was raised Christian. I am the only one in our family who is a practicing Jewess. Without my mother’s righteousness in teaching me some of the old stories, I may never have found my way back to our Jewish roots. Elizabeth’s death is inspirational for me to hold fast and live for what i believe…I will live as a Jewess and I will die with the Shema on my lips and HaShem in my heart…then I wil be buried as a daughter of Israel with dignity. Rest in Peace Elisheba Rachel…I will greet you in the olam haba.

Carrie. Known in klal Israel as Chanah Yael

Dolly Joern says:

I totally agree–she was never without heart.

I grew up on Elizabeth Taylor. For better or for worse (noting her many scandalous love affairs), she shaped my view of womanhood.

I cannot recall being aware of a world without Elizabeth Taylor.

I will miss her constant presence in the background of my life and my memories though it will always be easy to find her spirit.


Lesley says:

I admired Elizabeth Taylor for her dedication to Tikkun Olam! She spoke out from the beginning of our awareness of the epidemic of AIDS, and I am in her debt for the seven years that my parent’s life was prolonged by the medical researchers and practitioners that she raised funds for.

I did know about her choice to convert, and I deeply respect her courage to dedicate herself to our faith. She certainly did not just convert for a husband to be… but she sincerely embraced Judaism and just as our great matriarchs lived their faith and shaped our world through their wisdom, courage and deeds…so to did Elizabeth!

Her detractors often harped on her several marriages, human weaknesses, and struggles with health issues…but she always had the courage to look beyond them to see the larger issues and the crying needs of others struggling for life, dignity and peace. She chose our people, our teachings, our heritage and became one with us…standing with us at Sinai. Indeed, she is one of the righteous…and now is with our matriarchs of blessed memory! I will miss her laughter, twinkling eyes and devoted compassion for those in our society pushed to the edges and corners of our world! (by the way, are you related to Marty Shukart of Omaha?…I knew him at CHS and Beth El in the mid ’60’s!

Rachel says:

Marty Shukert of Omaha is, in fact, my father. This world, it is small.

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Elizabeth Taylor died today of congestive heart failure. That seems impossible: Whatever misfortunes befell the glamour queen and Jewish convert over the years, there was never a failure of heart.

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