Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Legend of Rabbi "Moses" May

Rabbi Mayer May

Sandwichman's maternal great-grandfather, Rabbi Mayer May, was rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon from 1872 to 1880. According to newspaper reports, on October 1, 1880, Rabbi M. May was involved in an altercation with A. Waldman, during which he fired two shots from a pistol, neither of which struck his assailant.

The incident occurred on Front Street, near the Esmond Hotel where U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes was staying during his historic 71-day tour of the West. 

For some years, Rabbi May had been embroiled in doctrinal disputes with some members of his congregation as he tried to introduce the Reform Jewish prayer book, which several Orthodox members resisted. Waldman was one of the dissidents and had leveled charges of impropriety and immorality at May, who in turn called him a liar.

Reportedly, Waldman came up from behind May one day, grabbed his coat, spun him around and punched him several times in the face, breaking his glasses. May then pulled out his revolver and, being semi-blinded shot twice in Waldman's general direction. Both men were arrested but only Waldman was charged with assault. Presumably, May's response was deemed self defense.

Following the incident, Rabbi May submitted a letter of resignation to the congregation in the interest of restoring peace and dignity. A little over a month later, the rabbi's house burned down. May was away from home at the time, but according to reports "his wife and children barely escaped with their lives." 

The house was located at the corner of Twelfth and Main Street. This is significant because the 1880 census shows Mayer May, a "minister," and his family, including my grandfather, Angelo Mayer May, living on Main Street in Portland. Many stories identify "Rabbi Moses May" as the rabbi involved in the incident. However, the only Moses May documented to be living in Portland any time near the event is listed in a commercial directory from 1885 as a peddler.

There are two secondary sources that report about the incident involving Rabbi May. "The War on the Willamette," published in 1958, is mainly a compilation of three newspaper items from the time, with a very brief and general introduction. The rabbi is identified in those news reports simply as "M. May." The second, "Mayer May: Pioneer Portland Rabbi," published in 1989, contains much more contextual information about Rabbi May's family and subsequent career, including interviews with two granddaughters, one of whom was my mother.

The name "Rabbi Moses May" appears to be a misinterpretation of a phrase in one of the newspaper accounts given in the 1958 article:

Waldman annoyed him continually, interfering with him and wishing him to teach the religion of Waldman instead of that of Moses, and because he did not has been trying to ruin him by setting adrift reports about his moral standing, which the Rabbi characterized as false, shameful, and hollow.

The Moses in that sentence is clearly the man who spoke to a burning bush, led the Jews out of Egypt, and received the commandments on Mount Sinai -- not the studious immigrant from Bavaria who fired two ineffectual shots from his pistol at a tormentor on Front Street in Portland in 1880. Nevertheless most recent stories about the misidentify the principal in the latter incident.

Temple Beth Israel in the 1800s

Even the website of Congregation Beth Israel of Portland lists "Rabbi Moses May" as rabbi from 1872 to 1880. But a video celebrating their 150th anniversary includes a photograph of my grandfather, Rabbi Mayer May, with a confirmation class. Page 207 of Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West also includes the same photo, with the caption, "Rabbi Mayer May and his confirmation class in Portland, Oregon, 1878; courtesy, Oregon Jewish Historical Society, Portland." The main text on the same page, however, refers to "teacher and cantor, Moses May" who "was hired to serve as acting rabbi at Beth Israel." 

For a while, as I was researching this story, I suspected that maybe Rabbi May changed his first name following the shooting incident. But the June 1880 census records contradict that theory. I have ordered my grandfather's birth certificate from 1879 and his sister's from 1872 (presumably) for further confirmation.

After resigning his ministry and losing his home, Mayer May moved his family to The Dalles, Oregon for a couple of years until taking up another ill-fated position as rabbi in Waco, Texas. After initially making a good impression, Rabbi May started preaching incoherent mysticism and was referred to a physician for mental illness. 

The malady appears to have been temporary as the family soon returned to The Dalles and then moved to San Francisco, where Mayer May established a solid reputation and career as a teacher and principal of the Free Religious School of the Jewish Educational Society of San Francisco.


Anonymous said...

Interesting story - thanks for sharing. I would love to know more about our family's 'story' as well.

Anonymous said...

Really nice.

Anonymous said...

Reading this again, I really value the portrait-history and await more. Really, really nice.

Anonymous said...

Rabbi May had been embroiled in doctrinal disputes with some members of his congregation as he tried to introduce the Reform Jewish prayer book, which several Orthodox members resisted....

[ The 1880 date is startling to me. ]

Anonymous said...

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) until 2003, founded in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, is the congregational arm of Reform Judaism in North America. The other two arms established by Rabbi Wise are the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.