Arthur Miller died yesterday at the age of 89. He was certainly one of the most talented playwrights this country has ever produced, from 1944’s “The Man Who Had All the Luck” to last year’s revival of “After the Fall.” In between he won a Pulitzer Prize for “Death of a Salesman” and Tony Awards for “All My Sons” and “The Crucible.” Is it possible, then, that many Americans will remember him primarily as the smart guy Marilyn Monroe married after Joe DiMaggio?
The two were married by Rabbi Robert Goldberg on July 1, 1956. Marilyn had converted to Judaism earlier that day in a solemn ceremony she seemed to take very seriously. Marilyn promised to raise her children in the Jewish faith and repeated the words: “I do herewith declare in the presence of God and the witnesses here assembled that I seek the fellowship of Israel.” I wonder if she said this in her whispery “Marilyn voice” or in a stronger, realer voice that most of us never got to hear. It’s tempting to lock Monroe into the iconic image we all have of her and imagine her prayers to God ending with a sexy, “Thank you ever so!” but I know there was a far more authentic side to this intelligent woman. I wonder what Miller’s immigrant parents from Poland thought the first time he brought Marilyn home. Did Mrs. Miller teach her prospective daughter-in-law how to make gefilte fish? Did the Millers accept Marilyn as a bona fide Jewess?
I hope Marilyn’s conversion was as meaningful as Kendall’s was. The only obstacle Kendall had to worry about during her conversion was me. I was so worried that people would think I forced her into it that I adopted a hands-off policy that often made it look like I was indifferent or even hostile. The truth is that I was very moved that Kendall chose to make that commitment. I enjoyed going to services with her at our new synagogue and observing the Jewish holidays. It was fun that she now knew some of the history behind the celebrations and could even argue about the meanings of the rituals (a very Jewish trait—we never got through a Passover seder in my childhood without several family members screaming that we were doing everything wrong). I was secretly glad that any children we might have in the future would automatically be Jewish, and, guiltiest secret of all, I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to endure the judgment or rejection I feared I might get from some of my religious family members if I married a shiksa.
My family does not have a good history when it comes to intermarriage. Both of my great-grandparents, who died in the 1970s, had codicils in their wills that disinherited their descendents if they ever married outside of the faith. Ever? Since I was a teenager when they died and I quickly spent the $500 I got from each of them on trips to Europe, what would happen, I wondered, if decades later I married a Catholic? Would I be apprehended by the Jewish courts and forced to write a reimbursement check to my great-grandparents’ estate? The few cases of intermarriage that did occur in the family were whispered about as if the cousin had committed an act of bestiality or necrophilia. One of my relatives went so far as to sit shiva for his son who married a non-Jew, tearing his clothes and acting as if his son were dead. Can you imagine? I’m happy to say that this family eventually reconciled (and it didn’t hurt that the marriage in question ended in divorce and he later got remarried to a Jewish woman).
My typical reaction to this kind of intolerance was to rebel on a massive scale. If only I could find a nice African-American Born Again Christian Islamic Fundamentalist Palestinian girlfriend, I’d show my family where to stick their damn codicils! But at the same time, another part of me longed for acceptance from the frum members of the clan. I already felt woefully inadequate for being, as I once heard a young orthodox cousin refer to me, “just a little bit Jewish,” and I remember countless family events where my brother, sister, and I would flail about in the orthodox synagogue trying to look like we knew what we were doing as we followed along with the prayers. We did our best to conform but I’m afraid our mimicry looked less like religious observance and more like the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Harpo Marx pretended they were mirror images of each other and tried to imitate every gesture.
We’d often cover for our inferiority complexes by sneaking out during services and making smug comments about our relatives who still seemed to be stuck in 19th century Poland. We led double lives during those years—on the one hand smirking at our family’s Old World ways and feeling very hip and modern and the other hand feeling inappropriate, stupid, and vaguely unclean—like the Bette Davis character in “Jezebel” when she arrives at the most important ball of the season wearing a flaming red hoopskirt when all the other women are chaste and demure in their white gowns.
When I moved to California in the 1980s I began my own journey back to the fold, studying with a renowned female rabbi and getting so excited learning about my religion that I felt like Yentl when she first got accepted into the yeshiva. I couldn’t wait to talk about my studies with some of my orthodox family members. Their reaction? “Ten minutes with a male rabbi is worth more than two years with a female rabbi.” Oy.
When Sophie and I got married in 1993 I was eager to tell my relatives that our ceremony would be performed in an orthodox synagogue in Paris by the Chief Rabbi of France, no less! (They didn’t need to know that my French wife-to-be was also an ordained minister in a New Age religious order in Los Angeles.) And then I hated myself for pandering for approval, as if I were saying, “Look! Look! I’m doing something that you can condone!” and then two seconds later, “How dare you be impressed by the Chief Rabbi of France but dismiss the rabbi in Los Angeles whom I’ve studied with for years!” These dialogues were only in my head, of course. I highly doubt that I was ever the subject of the kind of tongue-clicking, eye-rolling wrath that I imagined.
So ten years later when Kendall announced her plans to convert, I grilled her mercilessly. “Make sure you’re doing it for you and not for me!” I’d crow, confusing poor Kendall who certainly never would have thought of converting to Judaism if she had never met me and my unique brand of Jewness! We watched Charlotte’s speedy conversion on “Sex and the City” and laughed during the episode when her friends were trying to fix her up on a blind date after she broke up with her Jewish boyfriend. Her first question to them was “Is he Jewish?” “See!” I hissed to Kendall, “Charlotte is a real convert—she converted for herself and not because of some guy. If we broke up today you would drop your Judaism like a hot potato, right?” Oy, Kendall, I apologize for all the baggage you had to endure during this process. I even remember saying supportive things like “What do you mean you’re converting to Judaism? How absurd! That’s like me saying that I’m converting to being black!” It was all about my own insecurities and the fears that I had somehow secretly made Kendall abandon her true self and join my cult so that I could stoke the fires of my relatives’ approval. I now understand and appreciate why she did it and what it means for her and for our family. And, frankly, Kendall is SUCH a Jew, why did I ever have any doubts?
I’m glad that I was over my obsessive need to impress religious family members when Kendall and I planned our wedding last year, although it was such a deeply Jewish, spiritual ceremony that I needn’t have worried about anyone’s disapproval. I did send an early message out to the family, however, that if anyone had the slightest issue with the fact that we were getting married in a gay and lesbian synagogue by a lesbian feminist reform rabbi, they could go to H-E-double Shabbos candlesticks or, to quote the blessing that the rabbi of Anatevka gave for the Czar of Russia: “May God bless and keep them…far away from here!”
I wish Kendall and Marilyn Monroe could have been in the same conversion class at BCC. I know Kendall and Rabbi Lisa and the other folks there would have made Marilyn feel so welcome, so accepted, so much a part of our community. Isn’t that all she longed for during her short life? Maybe convert Liz Taylor could have joined Kendall and Marilyn and they could have spent many wonderful hours studying Talmud together, wrapping themselves in their tallit and davening, baking braided loaves of challah, and immersing themselves in the mikvah.
I know that Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller’s marriage did not end very well and that he had a third marriage to photographer Inge Morath which lasted 40 years. But I still like to think that Marilyn was waiting there on the other side yesterday to greet her former husband. Marilyn would be long-freed from the massive insecurities that made her life so difficult here on Earth, and she would be experiencing all the comforts, pleasures, and joys of her adopted religion.
Oy, Arthur, it’s so good to see you I’m completely farklempt! Mazel tov on that lifetime achievement award! Bubbeleh, you gotta help me with Marlon, that mamzer has been hocking me in chinik ever since he got here last year—such mishegoss with that putz! I wish he’d lose that farbissineh punim already and get that I’m not interested, vershtaysh? DiMaggio gave him such a potch in the kishkes yesterday I thought Marlon was going to turn into a vildeh chiyah! So Arthur, nu? Tell me what you’re working on these days, I’ve been kvelling about your career to Larry and Vivien! You’ve given us all such nachas!