Pin-up photo of Lauren Bacall for the November 24/26, 1944 issue of Yank, the Army Weekly, a weekly U.S. Army magazine fully staffed by enlisted men.

Pinup photo of Lauren Bacall for the November 24/26, 1944, issue of Yank, the Army Weekly, a weekly U.S. Army magazine fully staffed by enlisted men."Lauren Bacall - YankArmyWeekly detail" by U.S. Army - Yank, the Army Weekly. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday (Aug. 12) at 89, had mixed feelings about her Jewishness. In “By Myself,” her autobiography, she wrote that she “felt totally Jewish and always would,” yet chided herself for not being more open about her Jewish identity.

Below, five facts about Lauren Bacall’s Jewish life and — in her own words — how she felt to be Jewish:

1. She was born Betty Joan Perske.

Bacall was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family, but her Jewish-sounding name just wouldn’t cut it in the Hollywood of the 1940s and ’50s. She changed it to a version of her mother’s family name, Weinstein-Bacal.

“It was a period when people believed that you demonstrated your Americanization by Americanizing your name, and very frequently, Americanizing your nose,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“She did not hide the fact that she had these Jewish origins, but it was expected in Hollywood at the time that you would have an American name and persona,” he added.

2. The director who made her a star was not fond of Jews.

Howard Hawks was known for his disparaging comments about Jews and made one in front of Bacall not long after he met the teenage actress. Bacall recalled, in her autobiography, the thoughts that ran through her head.

“Oh, no, don’t let him be anti-Semitic. God, don’t let me come all this way and have it blow up in my face.”

When Bacall’s star was rising in the 1940s, many Jews in Hollywood tried to figure out “how to not attract attention to Jewishness precisely because of people upon whom they depended, like Hawks,” said Hasia Diner, professor of Hebrew and Jewish history at New York University.

Actors Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda in a scene from the television broadcast play "Petrified Forest", 1955.

Actors Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda in a scene from the television broadcast play “Petrified Forest,” 1955."Bacall,Bogart,Fonda crop" by Original uploader was Before My Ken at en.wikipedia, licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

3. Humphrey Bogart convinced her their children should be baptized.

Bacall didn’t like the idea at first.

“Bogie’s feeling was that the main reason for having the children christened was that, with discrimination still rampant in the world, it would give them one less hurdle to jump in life’s Olympics. I, with my family-ingrained Jewish background, bucked it — it felt too strange to me,” she wrote in her autobiography.

“True, I didn’t go to synagogue, but I felt totally Jewish and always would. I certainly didn’t intend to convert to Episcopalianism for the children, or to deny my own heritage. At the same time I knew how important it could be to a child to have a religious identity.”

Bacall’s decision on her children’s baptism was unusual, Diner said, but indicative of her and Bogart’s calculus that “being Jewish was too much of a liability in an environment in which one had to walk that tight rope” between being Jewish in private and appearing otherwise in public.

4. She was a first cousin of former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Peres, whose last name was originally Perski, was born in Poland, the home country of Bacall’s father’s family.

The cousins met in his Jerusalem office for an hour in 1987 when Peres was foreign minister and she was filming a movie in Israel. According to a news report from the time, he told her: “There are not too many Persky’s in the world . . . most of them are related.”

Lauren Bacall in France in 1989.

Lauren Bacall in France in 1989."Lauren Bacall08" by Roland Godefroy - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

5. Bacall grappled with her “non-Jewish” face as a teenager 

A model before she was an actress, Bacall once revealed to other models that she was Jewish, and despaired that the response “Oh — but you don’t look Jewish at all!” was meant as a compliment.

“I resented the discussion — and I resented being Jewish, being singled out because I was, and being some sort of freak because I didn’t look it,” Bacall wrote in her autobiography.

“Who cares? What is the difference between Jewish and Christian? But the difference is there — I’ve never really understood it and I spent the first half of my life worrying about it. More.”



    • No it refers to a language family that includes Hebrew, though in common English usage it means “Jewish” unless the discussion is specifically about linguistics.

        • the term “anti-Semitism” was invented in 19th century Europe to describe hatred of Jews, specifically. It has nothing to do with Semitic peoples (such as Arabs, for example) or Semitic languages; it relates specifically to Jews. “Jew Hatred” would be the correct term but it just sounded too harsh, so they used “Anti-Semitism” instead.

  1. It isn’t clear whether Bacall believed in a god.
    If she didn’t, she was an atheist.

    Religion for her seems to have been a tribal matter – a feeling of loyalty to one’s kin. And at times an unfortunate burden.

  2. Stephen Borkowski

    I wish there will be more articles like this one on Bacall being a wayto
    combat the rise in anti-semitism of late. Growing up in Greenpoint, Bklyn in the 30’s, I was told that jews were hated because they were Christ killers.The 2nd World War had result of diminishing that attitude so that by the turn of the century
    I had forgotten that anti semitism was alive in this country. I believe that it is due primarily to most people have learned that they and most of their neighbors know the differenc between Faith and empirical knowledge concerning their God..

  3. If Lauren Bacall was made to feel her Jewish name would not be acceptable to non Jews why did she also change Betty to Lauren? Lots of Hollywood actors changed their names. Were they also victims?

  4. Lauren Markoe

    Lauren Markoe

    Article author

    Her producer thought Lauren sounded more glamorous than Betty. And yes, many Hollywood stars changed their names to sound more Americanized and less Jewish, Armenian, whatever they were.

  5. Pesach Betzalel Fleischman

    I heard only today of her passing and as I am saying kaddish any way, and I don’t know if any one else is it’s my intention to complete the eleven months for her. If you could help me out with her hebrew name it would be much appreciated and a more successful kaddish.
    The Bogarts were neighbors with my aunt and uncle in Bel Aire and after my fathers’ passing on 1955, my mother, sister and I came out here at least for the summer. Sometimes our visits with my mother’s brother and his wife would coincide with those of their neighbors and sometimes we’d arrange it so.
    I’ll have to admit that I, even at fourteen, was not in awe of the “Hollywood movie community” but disappointed and even disdainful of our screen “idols” when they turned out to be a pretty shallow and materially directed society with the exception of a few and especially the Bogarts who were both earthy as well as seafarers and deep thinkers.
    I’ve always felt it a huge merit to have, at that time of life when my need was so great to have made a relationship with such amazing, beautiful people.
    Anyway, we should all, soon be reunited on this side of the grass. All the best and blessings for a good and sweet year. P B F

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