Marilyn Monroe’s Conversion | Making And Becoming Jewish History

Inspired by Tara Hanks’ article for Immortal Marilyn – Norma Jeane, Aunt Ana and Christian Science

In the wilting heat of New York State’s 1956 summer, a bride slipped on her figure hugging muslin gown and miniature  fly-away veil. At first glance, she appeared as the epitome of a late 1950s All-American bride, but she was anything but; This bride is none other than Golden Globe-winning actress Marilyn Monroe, and on this day she was to wed her third and final husband, playwright Arthur Miller, in a home Jewish ceremony.

It was Lee Strasberg (originally ‎Israel Strassberg), Marilyn’s beloved acting coach, who escorted the blushing bride down the aisle to a kippah-less Arthur.

Arthur was a secular Jew who didn’t care for the controversy surrounding intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles – his two other brides were both Catholics – and didn’t expect Marilyn, an agnostic once known as Norma Jeane, to convert; but she did, choosing to both join and make Jewish history.

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Norma Jeane & Della Monroe.

When she was only two weeks old, Norma Jeane’s journey to Judaism began.

A loyal follower of evangelical preacher Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, Norma Jeane’s grandmother Della successfully encouraged her daughter Gladys, a fragile woman and paranoid schizophrenic, to place the young child in the care of a devout then-United Pentecostal couple living in her neighbourhood – The Bolenders.

Less than 6 months later on the 6th of December, Norma Jeane was baptised into the Pentecostal church; A faith that she would later regard as a “cult”.

It was only when Norma Jeane came to be seven that her mother, now an “obsessed” Christian Science practitioner – a fixation caused by her disorder – reclaimed her; Sadly the reunion would be interrupted by a severe mental break down and the child soon became a ward of Grace McKee-Goddard – Gladys’ friend and party companion in their flapper days.

Though Grace tried her best looking after Norma Jeane proved too much of a burden in 1938 with the addition of caring for her step family, so she placed the then-12 year old with her 58-year-old Aunt Ana. This was to be one of the better periods in her childhood, and for the first time, she had a stable maternal figure.

Aunt Ana was also a pious Christian Scientist, described by her great-niece Eleanor as “very religious, but not a fanatic. In fact she was very sensible, compassionate and accepting of others. She looked severe and had an imposing carriage, but she was putty inside, not the domineering matron she was often made out to be.” Regarding the religion, biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles, stated Norma Jeane “responded to that creed’s ethic” and was passionate about the faith, but the Church’s strict hostility towards medicine caused the teenaged Norma Jean (who had now dropped the “e” in a tribute to Jean Harlow) to suffer unaided when she became stricken with the incurable ailment of endometriosis.

As it were, Norma Jean’s interest in the sect drastically subsided when Aunt Ana tragically died of heart failure in 1948, but with her natural intellect and eager curiosity it did not take long for an interest in psychoanalysis and philosophy to develop; An interest which would stay with her until her death. According to Lee Strasberg’s daughter Susan, Marilyn once said of her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-star Jane Russell, “Jane tried to convert me [to Christianity] and I tried to introduce her to Freud”.

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Some philosophy, psychoanalysis and spirituality themed books from Marilyn’s personal library.

Perhaps this is one thing that Marilyn found attractive in the Jews that she came to be surrounded by in the 1950s – the tradition’s affirmation of critical thinking, rationalism and natural embrace of philosophical ideals (see The Haskalah).

Already Marilyn’s closest associates were Jews  – including photographer Milton Greene, his wife Amy, poet Norman Rosten and her former acting coach Natasha Lytess – and she held a deep admiration for Jewish physicist Albert Einstein; But it was when she moved to New York to become a “serious actress” at The Actor’s Studio in 1955, that the Jewish home of Lee Strasberg and his wife Paula became her second dwelling. There, she became Paula’s third child and she took comfort in the strong family values instilled by the tradition, something she never had the pleasure of enjoying in her youth. Susan Strasberg once recounted how Marilyn had told her ‘I can identify with the Jews. Everybody’s always out to get them, no matter what they do, like me.’

So when Marilyn became engaged to Arthur Miller, whom she had known since 1951, it seemed natural for her to approach him and inquire about  joining the faith of his forefathers; Arthur found the entire thing wholly unnecessary, but supported his bride’s decision nonetheless. Accordingly, the couple contacted the Rabbi of Arthur’s cousin Morton, Rabbi Robert Goldberg of Congregation Mishkan Israel – a Reform synagogue in Connecticut.

20 days after Marilyn’s death, the Rabbi sent this letter to fellow scholar, Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus:

Arthur said that Marilyn was interested in becoming Jewish and that they would like me to perform their wedding ceremony…He made it clear to me that in no way did he make this demand on Marilyn…I met Marilyn with Arthur at her apartment in New York…I don’t remember what I expected but I was struck by her personal sweetness and charm. She seemed very shy. [She] said that she had no religious training other than some memories of a Fundamentalist Protestantism which she had long rejected. She indicated that she was attracted to Judaism by being impressed with Jewish people that she knew, especially Mr. Miller. She said that she was aware of the great characters that the Jewish people had produced and that she had read selections from Albert Einstein’s Out Of My Later Years….She indicated that she was impressed by the rationalism of Judaism—its ethical and prophetic ideals and its concept of close family life. After that meeting we met a number of times and she read a few books that I gave her. These included What Is A Jew? by Morris Kurtzer, [Abram Leon] Sacher’s History of the Jews, Milton Steinberg’s A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem, and the Conversion Manual of the CCAR [the Reform rabbinic organization Central Conference of American Rabbis]. We discussed the contents of these books…and I attempted to answer her questions. Marilyn was not an intellectual person but she was sincere in her desire to learn. It was also clear that her ability to concentrate over a long period of time was limited. However, I did feel that she understood and accepted the basic principles of Judaism…The place of the wedding was…the home of Arthur’s agent, Kay Brown, in Katonah…Before the wedding ceremony, I performed the Ceremony of Conversion which was witnessed by Arthur Miller, Kermit Miller (his brother), Morton Miller, Mr. and Mrs. Lee Strassberg, and Mr. and Mrs. Norman Rosten.10500243_1

As the event transpired at the home of Kay Brown, there was no immersion in a mikvah – a most vital step in the conversion process – meaning, tragically, that Marilyn’s conversion would be considered invalid by almost all Halachic (Jewish law) authorities, including the Rabbinate Of Israel, had it been reviewed. Even though Rabbi Goldberg always maintained that he was not persuaded to convert the movie star based on her sensuality or fame, and almost all who spoke on the topic, mentioned the sincerity of Marilyn’s convictions – Morton categorised the conversion as “perfunctory”, Arthur wrote that “I don’t think you could say she became a Jewess” and biographer Jeffrey Meyers compared it to the superficial Catholic conversion of Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited (1945).

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The Wedding Kiddush Chalices.

Even after kiddush was recited and the beautifully illuminated Ketubah was signed, the couple indulged themselves and their guests in the strictly un-kosher meal of cold lobster. To many it would appear as though Marilyn really had no interest in embracing the mizvot (commandments) that Judaism required of her, but in actuality the Reform stream very much emphasises/d the evolving nature of faith rather than strict adherence to Halacha.

In spite of all these alleged discrepancies, when Marilyn repeated the words first uttered 3,000 years ago by the Biblical Ruth, she was embraced as a member of the tribe by the lay people of the American Ashkenazim.

The Jewish American Hall Of Fame recounted the events

“Is it of your own free will that you seek admittance into the Jewish fold?” the rabbi asked.
“Yes”, Marilyn said.
“Do you renounce your former faith?”
She had had none so she renounced her lack of faith. “Yes”.
“Do you pledge your loyalty to Judaism? Do you promise to cast in your lot with the people of Israel amid all circumstances?”
It is good, she remembered, to suffer — if you share with others … “Yes.”
“Do you promise to lead a Jewish life?”
She thought of her new family, holding each other close in a bond of love. “Yes.”
“Should you be blessed with children do you agree to rear your children according to the Jewish faith?”
Her children, who would forever know who they were, who would have an answer to their questions. “Oh, yes,” she said.
The Rabbi smiled at her. “Repeat after me,” he said, and together they spoke the ancient words of the convert.
“I do herewith declare in the presence of God and the witnesses here assembled that I … seek the fellowship of Israel.
“I believe that God is one Almighty, Allwise, Most Holy …
The Rabbi took her hand and gave her solemnly a name chosen from the Bible — a name which she keeps entirely to herself. “With this name as token you are now a member of the household of Israel and have assumed all its rights, privileges and responsibilities.” His hand was on her head.

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Marilyn’s certificate of conversion

Despite 1950s Hollywood being an industry dominated by Jews and anti-Semitic sentiment on the decline, Marilyn’s conversion made Judaism more “goyish” and relatable to Gentiles – before the game-changing Barbra Streisand even stepped onto Broadway. It wasn’t without controversy however;

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The world reacts: Modern Screen Magazine, November 1956.

These very facts sent Jewish sociologists into a frenzy.

According to historian Lila Corwin Berman, fearful intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s crafted “sociological Jewishness”, making Judaism an ethnic identity, to appeal to Jews off the derech as well those Gentiles who looked at them as an inferior “race”; This sentiment remains in part still today, as is illustrated by Marilyn’s continuing exclusion from the historical encyclopedia Jewish Women In America and those debating her status online. Yet still, she was able to drastically switch the narrative, and reiterate that one could in fact choose to be chosen.

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Marilyn at the UJA Fundraiser, 1955.

Even more contentious, the Jewish State of Israel had only been established 8 years prior and was enthralled in conflict with it’s Arab neighbours (The Suez Crisis would take place only 4 months after Marilyn’s conversion). Marilyn’s conversion with the openly-Zionist Reform movement was perceived as support of Israel and in retaliation, the films she had appeared in were blacklisted by the Central Boycott Office (CBO) of the Arab League in Egypt, for having “shown pronounced pro-Israeli sympathies and collected donations for Israel”.

Marilyn had in fact, a year earlier, attended a fundraiser for The United Jewish Appeal (UJA) – a philanthropic foundation providing funds for  human-service and community-building in Jewish factions; But it wasn’t until a letter from Rabbi Goldberg resurfaced in 2010, that it was confirmed she had agreed to give a pro-Israel speech at the 1957 Miami UJA Conference, confirming her Zionist alliance. She did later refuse to attend the event due to the de-invention of Arthur, who was undergoing intense public scrutiny for suspected Communist links at the time.

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Marilyn’s menorah, now belonging to Amir Ben-Zion.

Interestingly however, in April 1961 soon after the couple’s divorce, The United Arab Republic (of Egypt and Syria) sent an urgent telegram to 20th Century Fox President Spyros Skouras requesting Marilyn’s attendance “for inaugurational light and sound of pyramids and sphinx. All expenses to be borne by the government”. They had hoped to book the biggest act in Egypt since Aida showed in 1869, but they seemed to be blissfully unaware that despite her departure from a Jewish family, a 1950 brass-plated menorah that’s base sung Israel’s national anthem of “Hatikvah” still sat upon her mantle, a mezuzah still hung from her doorframe and that she was still, technically, Jewish.
Needless to say, their request was denied.

The official grounds for the couple’s said divorce was “incompatibility”- It wasn’t easy to be married to an intellectual, just as it wasn’t easy to be married to a bombshell. Most accounts mention Arthur’s patronising nature, and Marilyn’s crippling insecurity, yet in a lesser known narrative, Marilyn would slip Yiddish words like oy vey into her conversations with Arthur, in an attempt to gain a sense of belonging and to be validated by her husband.

Truth be told, Judaism played little role besides providing community in Marilyn’s life once her initial enthusiasm faded – she even later described herself as a “Jewish atheist”. Yet in the brief time of her observance, no matter how valid we consider her conversion to be, she provided a platform to other Jews-By-Choice and paved a path for many of her contemporaries to soon, perhaps more stringently, venture for themselves.

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Courtesy of The Milton H. Greene Archives


Sources:

Hanks, T. (2017). Norma Jeane, Aunt Ana And Christian Science. [Blog] Immortal Marilyn.

Berman, L. (2010). When Marilyn Monroe Became A Jew. Reform Judaism, (Vol 38, No. 3), pp.18-20.

Meyers, J. (2012). The Genius And The Goddess: Arthur Miller And Marilyn Monroe. Urbana: University Of Illinois Press, pp.155-157.

Feiler, G. (2013). From Boycott to Economic Cooperation: The Political Economy of the Arab Boycott of Israel. 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge, p.33.

Berman, L. (2009). Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp.143-150.

Jewish-American Hall of Fame. Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr. could all be in the Jewish-American Hall of Fame!. [online] Available at: http://www.amuseum.org/jahf/nomination/elvis_article.html

All images used belong to their respective copyright owners.

Many thanks to the members of Immortal Marilyn, Marilyn Remembered and Everlasting Star for their assistance.

 

One comment

  1. Dr Marilyn Monroe says:

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