The Religion Marilyn Monroe Found Meaning In Isn't What You'd Expect

Marilyn Monroe remains one of the brightest stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood whose movie roles in classics such as "Some Like it Hot!" and "The Seven Year Itch" are celebrated for her impeccable comic performances and her legendary, stunning on-screen beauty. Alongside her achievements in celluloid, Monroe's life is remembered as controversial, attracting numerous scandals during a period of conflicting hedonism and moralism, particularly for her rumored affairs with famous figures of the day, one of those most notably President John F. Kennedy.

Monroe's difficult and peripatetic upbringing — characterized allegedly by numerous stays in foster homes and orphanages — was employed by studios to add a rags-to-riches aspect to her rise to success. Nevertheless, Marilyn did enjoy some stability during her childhood, especially during her early years, when she was cared for by a devout evangelical couple named Albert and Ida Bolender, according to "Marilyn Monroe: The Biography," by Donald Spoto. Despite her difficult relationship with her biological family, Monroe was baptized at the behest of her maternal grandmother, Gladys.

Though Christian as a child, Monroe cared little for religion until later in her adulthood. But it wasn't Christianity she turned to. In 1956, Monroe made the decision to convert to Judaism, which remained part of her identity for the rest of her life.

Relationship with Arthur Miller

Marilyn Monroe's embracement of Judaism came in the mid-1950s when she began her relationship with the famed playwright Arthur Miller, whom she would go on to marry in June 1956. As Jeffrey Meyers reveals in "The Genius and the Goddess," a chronicle of the couple's relationship, Monroe met Miller as early as 1951 when she was a young starlet trying to get her career off the ground in Los Angeles and when Miller, by then successful in the theater, was trying to break into Hollywood screenwriting. Miller was married at the time of their chance meeting, but stayed in touch with Monroe via letters while his marriage slowly disintegrated. In the meantime, Monroe would marry baseball legend Joe DiMaggio in 1954 and the union would last only nine months. According to Meyers, Monroe previously told friends that she was destined to marry Miller even while she was engaged to DiMaggio.

Monroe romanticized Miller as a handsome and charming public intellectual. She was impressed that he refrained from coming on to her during early meetings, unlike the majority of men she knew at the time, according to Biography. So when Miller filed for a divorce from his wife and his affair with Monroe was able to come out into the open, Monroe wanted to go all-in on her third and final marriage, which she had looked forward to for half of a decade.

Conversion to Judaism

Arthur Miller was Jewish and during the early months of their relationship, Marilyn Monroe took steps to understand the famous playwright's heritage, eventually converting to the same religion as her beloved future husband. The two enjoyed a traditional Jewish wedding.

As Jeffrey Meyers chronicles in his book, Monroe's day-to-day life before her engagement to Miller contained many close Jewish friends and acquaintances, such as her acting coach Natasha Lytess (who gave Marilyn away at her wedding to DiMaggio). But now that she was truly with Miller, she was eager to lovingly share in his background. She was also attracted to the religion perhaps by a sense of community in the Jewish faith that conversion would allow for; something that was sadly denied to her in her early life, according to the Atlanta Jewish Times.

To prepare for her conversion, Monroe had private study lessons with Rabbi Robert Goldburg, who recalled years later: "She was aware of the great character that the Jewish people had produced. ... She was impressed by the rationalism of Judaism — its ethical and prophetic ideals and its close family life..." (via the Atlanta Jewish Times). Despite her study and the completion of her conversion being marked by an official certificate on July 1, 1956, Monroe maintained that, though she was now Jewish, that she also remained an atheist, too.

Her new marriage and identity politicized Monroe

Marilyn Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller was celebrated by many commentators, periodicals, and public figures and lauded as an ideal union between a great beauty and a literary genius. However, Monroe was understandably rather uncomfortable with the supposed contrast, with comments by a speaker at the couple's wedding apparently causing some offense, according to History Today. Though Monroe had already attracted interest both good and bad from the wider world, thanks to her status as a bona fide Hollywood bombshell, her union with Miller brought her under fresh scrutiny, as did her new Jewish identity.

As noted by Biography, Miller had long been identified as a potential communist sympathizer due to a number of meetings he had attended in the 1940s, and, though he was never an official member of the American Community Party, the playwright was forced to defend himself in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. As Miller's wife, Monroe, too, fell under the suspicion of having Communist ties. Meanwhile, Monroe's conversion to Judaism was making her new enemies, including Egypt, that upon receiving news that she was now Jewish, formally banned her Hollywood films from being shown in the country (per Meyers).

Miller questioned Monroe's conversion

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller divorced after five years together, having suffered through a tumultuous marriage that never recovered after Monroe discovered writings that her husband made about her that negatively questioned their union, according to Biography.

Though Monroe was now separated from Miller, she decided to maintain her own Jewish identity. This may have surprised Miller, who, despite his adoration for Monroe prior to their marriage, later admitted that he always had mixed feelings towards his wife's religious conversion, even writing to a friend: ""[S]he took it all very seriously. I would say she wanted to join me and become part of my life. But her interest in talking to the rabbi had about it an unreality to me." (via Meyers)

Nevertheless, in public at least, Monroe maintained her self-described 'Jewish Atheist' identity after divorcing from Miller, and kept Jewish symbols in her home including a menorah and mezuzah, according to Meyers. The mezuzah was reportedly still hanging from the doorframe of Monroe's Los Angeles home when she was discovered to died by suicide as a result of a fatal overdose on August 4, 1962 at the age of 36.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Marilyn Monroe's Jewish prayer book

At the time of her conversion, Marilyn Monroe was open about how easily she identified with and belonging among Jewish people, telling her Jewish drama coach Paula Strasberg: "Everybody's out to get them, no matter what they do, like me." (via the Atlanta Jewish Times) Some biographers have, like Arthur Miller himself, questioned the validity of the conversion and whether its right to consider Monroe a Jewish woman, especially after her divorce from Miller. Other outlets, however, have tried to highlight this under-explored facet of her life.

In 2018, a spotlight was shone on Marilyn Monroe's journey toward Judaism when her personal Jewish Prayer Book, titled "Daily Prayers," was announced as having been put up for auction, according to The New York Times. The book contains Monroe's study notes, which written in pencil throughout, and was estimated to sell for between $5,000 and $8,000. It sold in November of that year for $21,000.