Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Shown here is a copy of Arthur Miller’s seminal work, “Death of a Salesman,” signed by the author.

One of the most prominent figures in American literature and cinema for over sixty years and widely regarded in the 1950s as America’s leading dramatist, Miller (1915 – 2005) gave postwar American drama a sense of tragic conflict in contemporary American life. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is perhaps best known for “Death of a Salesman” (1949), the first play to sweep the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

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A recurrent theme in Miller’s work is the tragic defeats that befall common people. His specific use of that theme in “Salesman,” the tragedy of an “American everyman” who is destroyed by the failure of the American dream, is likely a semi-autobiographical reflection of his own childhood, when his father fell victim to the great stock market crash of 1929 and the family was suddenly thrust into abject poverty.

Though born to a non-observant Jewish family in New York City, Miller had a bar mitzvah, and Jewishness infused his early life. He struggled with his Jewish identity but –although he viewed traditional Judaism as irrelevant, characterized himself as an atheist, and his Jewish characters often rued their status as Jews and sought to escape it – never hid his Jewish heritage.

Interestingly, although his work does not generally present overtly Jewish characters and ideas, he is considered the first American playwright to explore Jewish identity from the prospective of a self-searching Jew.

In fact, many have argued not only that Jewish themes pervade his work but that, in fact, even his best-known character, Willy Loman, was actually a Jew. Miller apparently attempted to paper over his protagonist’s ethnicity, refusing to comment on Loman’s alleged Jewish heritage and maintaining that the question of Loman’s religious background was supremely unimportant, but he later referred to the wretched Loman family as “Jews who were light-years away from religion or a community that might have fostered Jewish identity.”

In much of his work, Miller addressed Jewish identity through the prism of American assimilation, developing the idea that the Depression facilitated the growth of anti-Semitism and the ability of the power elites to distract the country from its economic and other woes by following the well-tread historical path of “blaming it all on the Jews.”

Thus, for example, in Focus (1945), his only novel about explicitly Jewish characters (and in which his protagonist is an anti-Semite mistaken for a Jew), a Jewish shopkeeper comments that “All I’m good for is so [anti-Semites] can point to me and everybody else will give them their brains and their money, and then they will have the country.”

The underlying angst in Focus, which went on to become instrumental in generating a national dialogue about anti-Semitism, was based on the playwright’s own experience as a night shift worker during World War II at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he was subject to anti-Semitism from his co-workers.

Focus was dramatized as an NBC TV special on Sunday, January 21, 1962. The presentation was produced in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee’s Institute of Human Relations.

The Holocaust became a frequent theme in Miller’s work. For example, in his lesser-known “Incident at Vichy,” a play framed against the French round-up of Jews during the Shoah, a French Jewish psychiatrist explains that “Jew is only that name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look on like a cold abstraction.”

In “After the Fall,” where the stage is set with only a single chair set next to a guard tower in a concentration camp, Miller grappled with the question of whether morality could exist after the Holocaust. In “Broken Glass,” a Jewish wife becomes paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair through the combination of Kristallnacht and the acute Jewish self-hatred projected onto her by her egocentric Jewish husband.

One of Miller’s most significant works was “The Crucible” (1953), which was deeply influenced by the blacklisting of his left-wing friends during the McCarthy era. Miller was himself cited for contempt of Congress for his refusal to inform on his colleagues before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Most of Miller’s plays were performed in Israel, beginning with “Salesman,” which was performed at the Habimah National Theatre in Tel Aviv (1951). He visited Israel several times, once attending a presentation of his “All My Sons” and sitting next to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on his last day in office, May 17, 1977. (Rabin later served again as prime minister from 1992 until his assassination in 1995.)

But Miller was no friend of Israel. For example, in 2003, unable due to illness to travel there to receive the Jerusalem Prize, Israel’s prestigious international literary award, he created an uproar when he sent a video with an acceptance speech in which he slammed Israeli leaders for allegedly abandoning the country’s values and visionary character; characterized Israel as “an armed and rather desperate society at odds with its neighbors but also the world;” and argued that Israel was not worth preserving unless it found a way to reconsider its “unjust” settlement policies.

* * * * *

Before she wed Miller, Marilyn Monroe converted to Reform Judaism (1956) and, in the presence of Rabbi Robert Goldberg, Miller, and Miller’s family, pledged her loyalty to Judaism and promised to cast her lot with the people of Israel, to live a Jewish life, and to raise her children as Jews. She married Miller in a civil ceremony on June 29, 1956 butat her suggestionthe couple held a second ceremony a few days later on July 1, 1956, this time in a Jewish ceremony performed by Rabbi Goldberg under a chuppah. (Her original signed conversion certificate sold in 2015 for $70,400.) Not surprisingly, the Arab League snapped into action by banning her films.

Invited along with her husband to address a UJA conference in Miami, Monroe wrote a speech about why she believed that Jewish institutions, especially Israel, deserve broad public support, but she ultimately declined to deliver the address when the UJA rescinded its invitation to Miller after his HUAC indictment. She did, however, later attend a dinner held on September 27, 1959 in Philadelphia by a chapter of the American Friends of the Hebrew University where Miller was awarded an honorary degree to commemorate his “distinguished achievement in the Dramatic Arts.”

Shown here is a unique and rare item from my collection, a program from that historic event on which Monroe has signed and inscribed “To Stevie – Happy Bar Mitzvah! Marilyn Monroe.”

Miller and Rabbi Goldberg were always clear that Monroe was sincere in her desire to become Jewish and that no one had ever brought any pressure to bear on her to convert. Monroe stated that she was attracted to Judaism because she was impressed by “the rationalism of Judaism – its ethical and prophetic ideals and its concept of close family life.” She proudly displayed her menorah, a conversion gift from Miller’s mother which played the Hatikvah (the musical menorah sold at auction for $19,540 in 1999), and she regularly gave Chanukah presents to Miller’s children. She also attended Passover Seders and would have attended synagogue but for the fear of an invasive and aggressive press disturbing the prayer services.

Even after the couple obtained a Mexican divorce on January 24, 1961, Monroe never repudiated her conversion. She kept her mezuzah on her doorpost and her menorah on her mantle, occasionally used Yiddish words, and cheerfully referred to herself as “an atheist Jew.”

While her Reform conversion was halachically invalid, the irony is that Monroe seems to have cared far more about Judaism than Miller ever did.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.