Inside The Jewish Lives of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe

Marriage linked the two film stars to Judaism—but how profound did the connection stay after those relationships ended?

David Rubinger/Corbis

“I, Mrs. Michael Todd, née Elizabeth Taylor, do declare in the presence of God I seek the fellowships of the people of Israel,” she softly states.

There is something precious, even spiritual, about listening in on Elizabeth Taylor’s conversion to Judaism. While not accompanied by a visual image or footage from the 1959 conversion at Temple Israel in Hollywood, the recording of Taylor reciting “Sh'ma Yis'ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad” (“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”) is strikingly emotional—even if you worship celebrities rather than the Almighty.

Both sets of congregants will find inspiration and fulfillment at Becoming Jewish: Warhol’s Liz and Marilyn at New York’s Jewish Museum.

Anchored by Andy Warhol’s iconic paintings and prints of Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, the exhibition explores the private details of two movie goddesses’ adoption of Judaism in the context of their very public celebrity personas.

While Taylor joined the Tribe in 1959, Monroe converted just a few years earlier in 1956—in fact, it was mere hours before her July 1 wedding to playwright Arthur Miller (that was a Jewish ceremony, they had legally married at a courthouse two days prior to that).

The exhibition features soundless footage of Monroe as a glowing bride in a relatively informal white dress and short veil enjoying a small reception at the home of Miller’s agent, Kay Brown, in Katonah, New York, hours after that ceremony.

“It was really crucial to see the contrast between what the public saw and what was happening behind the scenes in their personal lives,” the exhibition’s curator, Joanna Montoya Robotham, told The Daily Beast.

Becoming Jewish does a fantastic job of immersing visitors in the Golden Age of Hollywood celebrity culture that obsessed Warhol.

Issues of Movieland, Photoplay, Screen Stories, and Modern Screen magazines, all with covers of Taylor or Monroe, line a wall of the exhibition.

By today’s standards of paparazzi invading Bora Bora bungalows to snap full-frontal shots of Justin Bieber, the Hollywood fan magazines from the 1950s and 1960s are downright quaint.

Still, one gets a sense of how the celebrity obsession was turning invasive and toxic with headlines like “Is Liz Afraid to Have Eddie’s Baby?” and “The Tragic Facts About Liz and Debbie’s Fatherless Children.”

That underside of fame and celebrity deeply fascinated Warhol, and it’s why he was drawn to Monroe and Taylor in the first place. His iconic renderings of the two stars were part of his Death and Disaster series: he began working on the Marilyn images shortly after her August 5, 1962 death and the Liz ones were prompted by her near-fatal bout of pneumonia during the filming of Cleopatra.

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The larger-than-life, colorful-to-the-point-of-almost-garish images of Monroe and Taylor pose the perfect juxtaposition to the private slivers of insight into their religious lives, which is the true core of Becoming Jewish.

The exhibition is rather small, a single room that takes no more than 30 to 40 minutes to fully explore. But the space fosters a sense of intimacy, enhancing the deeply personal revelations about two of the most famous and photographed women in American history.

Listening to the recording of Taylor’s conversion illustrates one of the few moments in her life that hasn’t been unearthed in the obsessive tabloid coverage, nor the many biographies about her.

Taylor’s voice is perfectly clear and utterly demure, a striking comparison to her brashy Southern vocals a year earlier as Maggie in the 1958 movie of the Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

That same year the movie was released, 26-year-old Taylor became a widow after her beloved Mike Todd died in a plane crash.

Todd was actually born Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen, one of nine children in a Minneapolis family headed by a Polish Orthodox rabbi. With a handful of carefully selected clips, Becoming Jewish does a wonderful job of illustrating why Todd is considered the great love in Taylor’s long line of beaus.

“Mrs. Todd is my favorite person in the whole world,” Todd states in a snippet of black-and-white footage from a 1975 interview. “She doesn’t look beautiful. She is beautiful.”

Todd was more than 20 years her senior (and looked it), but viewing the way he treasured Taylor suggests why she loved him so.

According to the exhibition, the loss of Todd more than her decision to scandalously marry his best friend, Eddie Fisher, led to her conversion. By all accounts neither Todd nor the also Jewish Fisher cared if Taylor converted before marriage (and the fact that Fisher was married to Christian Debbie Reynolds further supports this).

Following Todd’s death, Taylor began seeking spiritual counseling from his rabbi, Max Nussbaum of Hollywood’s Temple Israel. She began studying with Nussbaum, who oversaw her conversion and officiated her 1959 marriage to Fisher.

“It was something I had wanted to do for a long time,” Taylor said of her decision to convert and adopt Elisheba Rachel as her Hebrew name. She continued her devotion to Judaism and Jewish causes long after her marriages to Jews disintegrated.

The exhibition is filled with shots of the ever-stunning Liz exploring Israel with Richard Burton.

In jeans with a colorful scarf tied around her hair and large gold hoops dangling from her ears, Taylor makes for the most stylish sabra (a nickname for a native Israeli) during her 1975 trip to the Western Wall.

In another, she sits beside Simon Wiesenthal, a fitting image since she served on the board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Taylor even reportedly offered herself up as an exchange hostage in 1976 when over 100 people, mostly Israeli, were held in Entebbe, Uganda, on the infamous hijacked Air France flight en route from Tel Aviv to Paris.

While the exhibition includes clips of Miller and Monroe arm-in-arm at press conferences and plenty of photos of them, it doesn’t capture the same sense of gushing affection that is so apparent between Todd and Taylor.

Fewer markers of Monroe’s connection to Judaism are on display, though the ones present are quite special.

One that particular stands out is Monroe’s beautiful, simple musical menorah, which played the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah.”

There is less information or, for that matter, evidence of Monroe’s connection to Judaism after her marriage to Miller ended in 1961—though that may very well be a sad consequence of the little life she had left to live.

Nevertheless, according to letters from Rabbi Robert E. Goldburg, who oversaw Monroe’s conversion, the blond bombshell told him she had no intention of renouncing Judaism after the divorce.

She also, apparently, remained very close to Miller’s children and father until her passing.

Becoming Jewish features two detailed letters from Goldburg: one from September 7, 1962, barely a month after Monroe was found dead, and another from August 6, 1986. His descriptions of Monroe provide a new perspective on one of the most iconic and enduring celebrities.

Goldburg wrote about his first time meeting Monroe at her apartment on Sutton Place after Miller invited him and how he was “struck by her personal sweetness and charm.”

Unlike Taylor’s draw to Judaism, Monroe’s does not necessarily seem driven by a romantic-related desire.

Goldburg’s letters describe how Marilyn expressed her respect for Jewish individuals. Albert Einstein and his book of essays, Out of My Later Years, were especially significant to her.

Goldburg also wrote that she felt no connection to the “Fundamentalist” Christianity she was raised with in her foster home. Instead, she was attracted to Judaism’s “concept of close family life.”

Not everything Goldburg includes in his letter is, shall we say, glowing. Writing of his lessons and assignments for her during the required study for her conversion, Goldburg states: “Marilyn was not an intellectual… It was also clear her ability to concentrate for a long period of time was limited.”

Perhaps most eerily poignant to those of us who have poured of the tragic details of Monroe’s short life—from her tattered childhood to her struggles to be taken seriously as an actress to her failure to conceive the children she so wanted—is Goldburg’s line that Monroe sought Judaism because she “often identified with the ‘underdog.’”

Like so much of America, Goldburg was clearly struck by Monroe’s untimely death and sensed a dark pain and deep tenderness underneath her glowing smiles and traffic-stopping curves.

“I have always felt that she was an extremely lovely person who was not able to overcome the terrible emotional burdens, which were a part of her childhood and which were aggravated by her tremendous fame,” Goldburg wrote.

Monroe may have converted at the height of her celebrity, but as Becoming Jewish illustrates, religion couldn’t rescue her from Hollywood.