Memoir of an Irish Jew: A Letter to a Rabbi
Richard W. May
Copyright ©1998 Richard W. May
Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of many generations.
Ask your father, and he will show you,
Your elders and they will tell you.
Truth is the safest lie. --Yiddish proverb
What do I have in common with the Jews?
I don't even have anything in common with myself.
Dear Rabbi Betrueger,
Thank you for helping me to obtain the genealogical work Americans of Jewish Descent, by Rabbi Malcolm H. Stern, Ph.D., from the library of the Temple Beth Zion. Thank you especially for allowing me to take it out of the library.
My great grandfather was a yarmulke-wearing jeweler in
That was Father's only statement of religious identity ever that I can recall. We weren't Jews. Not that he ever claimed that we were Lutherans or German Catholics. (Nor did he deny that we had been Muslims or Hindus!)
Father also added that Charles looked very Jewish. So Charles would hardly have required a yarmulke to have a Jewish appearance for whatever reason. I later learned that my grandfather was also a jeweler. But he was only said to have had "a business."
Death notices in the newspaper said that Charles had been a wholesale jeweler. Curiously no photographs of Grandfather remained for me to see, although he lived till early 1949.
Jewish genealogical sources have told me that there were many Jews with the surname "May" in the region of
Ferdinand May, with his wife and seven children, left the Hessen (Germany) in March of 1853 and took up residence at Number 3 New Street Bishopsgate Street in London, England--which coincidentally, of course, was one of the very best places to be a Jew in the mid 19th century.
I was able to obtain a complete copy of Ferdinand May's English naturalization papers of 1856, by which he applied for and was granted English citizenship. These papers included the testimony of four character witnesses who swore that he was a good fellow who loved
In the words of a member of the congregation of the Temple Beth Zion upon hearing this, I am a "Jew by my Father's side". (I may also be a "born Jew under the law" through my mother's mother, Florence Crane, who was an orphan whose daughter, my mother, was also an orphan. But that is another, more fragmented tale.) So, indeed, I think that my ancestors "fooled the Jews," and I was among the Jews who were "fooled" (through apostasy, intermarriage, assimilation, and denial of Jewish identity).
Eventually I hope to obtain a copy of Ferdinand May's death record from
How does one obtain a kippah?
Richard W. May
Initially I did not realize the significance of the
Later the May family moved to13
On the English naturalization papers in 1856 of Ferdinand May in
I wondered what was going on here regarding Jews and oaths. Was my ancestor’s statement regarding oaths being no longer necessary a matter that would be of concern to an observant Jew? Then I learned that while the Talmud doesn’t absolutely prohibit the swearing of an oath it advises, "Whether you are right or wrong, never take an oath." Avoidance of oath taking based upon the Talmud has continued even to the present (The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, page 261). So my suspicions seemed to be confirmed.
Charles May and Son Company was a wholesale jewelry business founded by
Charles in the late 19th century. He was listed in a
Charles May and Son Company, which was located at 373 Washington St., Boston, Mass., at the corner of Bromfield St., was incorporated in Massachusetts in 1912. The corporation was not legally dissolved until 1943. Indeed, Charles worked there until he was in his eighties, according to his death record. William May, his son, was president of the corporation. The treasurer was Walter Stanley Campbell, his son-law. To my surprise the family business was apparently listed on the stock exchange. Charles’ will of 1924 and the codicil of 1926 referred to shares of common and preferred stock in Charles May and Son Company.
Charles May, his wife, their two daughters and a son-in-law are buried in a common plot in a non-sectarian cemetery in Boston, Mass. with no religious symbols (such as crosses, stars of David or Hebrew writing) on their graves. As the Deists compared G-d with a watchmaker, maybe in this case the watchmaker became a Deist?
In March of 1853 Ferdinand "May," accompanied by his wife and
seven children, arrived in
Charles May’s name on his
Finally after three years of research I found the smoking yarmulke. On 18 November 1863 Rosalie May, age 24, Ferdinand’s daughter (Charles’ oldest sibling) married Louis Heim, the son of Jacob Heim who was a synagogue reader, at 13 Wilson Street, London, England (where both were living). The marriage was officiated over by Dr. Nathan Marcus Adler, the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue. The marriage certificate adds that the marriage was performed according to the "rites and ceremonies of the Jewish religion." Indeed, until only very recently in England only Jews could be legally married in their homes, whereas gentiles could be married only at a Civil Registry (justice of the peace) or in a house of worship.
A death notice in the Jewish Chronicle of 16 November 1894, says "On 10th November, Kattchen May of 23 Penn Road Villas, N., aged 83, mother of William May of Finsbury Park, and George May of Highbury New Park." The United Synagogue burial records for Kattchen May list her status as "member of East Ham". "East Ham" refers to the East Ham Synagogue in East London. The United Synagogue burial records for Ferdinand May list his status as "stranger"! There was no death notice in the Jewish Chronicle for Ferdinand May.
Ferdinand Mayer’s professions as listed on the birth records of his seven children who were born in Giessen were as follows: wine dealer, restaurant owner, businessman/trader, liquor manufacturer (which, incidentally, was considered a respectable profession and not prohibited by Jewish law), and businessman/merchant. On his London death record, English naturalization papers, census records and in London commercial directories in the 1860s he was said to be a hotel proprietor ("private hotel keeper"). Commercial directories also listed "Ferdinand May: watch maker" and "Ferdinand May, 13 Wilson St.: commission agent". "Commission agent" was generally in Victorian London a gentile term for bookmaker of the gambling variety!
Ferdinand MEYER (Mayer) is listed on a register of citizens from Giessen (which spanned the years 1770-1898) as follows:
Born: 25 March 1812 in Nierstein
Profession: wine dealer
Received as a citizen 15 May 1838 as per order of the district council.
Nierstein is well known for its wines, hence Ferdinand’s profession. Receiving citizenship was a step taken in preparation for his imminent marriage.
The Giessen citizenship register (1770-1898) had the following information on Ferdinand’s father-in-law, Isaak Simon LANDAUER:
Isaak Simon LANDAUER
Born: 7 January 1775 in Rohrbach (Baden)
Isaak Simon Landauer and his wife (name not given) were granted citizenship in Giessen on 2 April 1833.
Jewish vital records were, and in fact still are, kept separate from gentile vital records in the Giessen archives. Oddly, it is here in the separate Jewish-records section where my May ancestral records of the MAYERs and the LANDAUERs were located.
The civil marriage record of Ferdinand Mayer in Giessen stated that Ferdinand Mayer, local citizen, twenty-six years old, and Kaetchen, twenty-six years old, daughter of the local citizen Isaak Simon LANDAUER from here (Giesssen), were married on 5 June 1838. The witnesses were Simon LOEB and Salomon HEICHELHEIM from Giessen. The civil marriage record referenced the Rabbi’s certificate, but did not give the name of the Rabbi who officiated at the marriage.
Ferdinand’s birth record is in French, because Napoleon occupied that area of the Hessen at the time of his birth, which occurred on 26 February 1812 in Nierstein (very near Oppenheim) on the Rhine river. His father was Guillaume (Wilhelm) MAYER, aged forty-two, a tradesman by profession. His mother was Julienne (or Juliette) MAYER. Initially it appeared that her maiden name was also Mayer (Jewish marriages to relatives, including cousins, were quite common and in accordance with Jewish law). But her maiden name was actually Juliette Hamburg.
Ferdinand and Kettchen May are buried in the West Ham Cemetery (a Jewish cemetery) in East London. On Ferdinand’s head stone the Hebrew inscription says: "Niftar Erev Shabat Kodesh" (Died on the Eve of the Holy Sabbath) "Kaf Bet" (22 Adar, the 22nd day of the month of Adar) "Taf Resh Nun" = 650, that is, the year 5650 on the Jewish calendar, which corresponds to Friday, 14 March 1890.
Nizkor et masoret hadorot,
v'nishzor bah et sarigay chayeynu.
(Recalling the generations, we weave our lives into the tradition.)
--from The Book of Blessings, by Marcia Falk
Note on Not Being Irish
On 13 March 1911, near the time of a full moon and four days before St.
Patrick's day, my grandfather, Hiram Porter McGinnis, a Scots-Irish farmer and
great grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, returned to his home at Cold
Spring Park, Crown Point, N.Y., apparently drunk, and shot his second wife (my
grandmother, Florence Crane McGinnis) through the left lung. He then shot
himself through the heart, after first unlocking the door to their dwelling to
prevent any property damage when the authorities arrived. Both died.
Florence had apparently been sifting flour in the pantry at the time, according to the coroner's inquest report, a document not often mentioned in genealogy. These events were witnessed by my mother who was six years old and her younger brother. Both watched outside, looking in a window. An infant slept nearby.
Hiram was sixty-one years old at the time, whereas Florence, who had initially been Hiram's adopted daughter, had just turned twenty-nine two days before, according to their death records. Hiram's first wife, perhaps aptly named "Sophia" (wisdom), had driven a horse and buggy off a pier and subsequently drowned, according to the anecdotal report of a cousin.
Hence, we weren't Irish, as we weren't Jewish. I was only told that Mother's maiden name was Crane, and that she had been an orphan and did not know the names of her parents. ("Truth is the safest lie.")
Note Explaining “kippah”
Kippah is the Hebrew word for yarmulke. The word yarmulke is of Yiddish/Polish origin. (Somewhere in the Talmud it is stated that a man shall not walk four paces without covering his head. Apparently one to three paces was permissible. The sages did not interpret this to apply only to bald men. The purpose of the kippah was to remind the wearer that G-d is above.)
Suddenly Jewish: Jews Raised As Gentiles Discover Their Jewish Roots, by Barbara Kessel
The Tribes of Israel, by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail
After Long Silence, by Helen Fremont
Turbulent Souls, by Stephen Dubner
["Memoir of an Irish Jew, Part Two" appears in Noesis #156, January 2002.]