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.

            --Deuteronomy 32:7

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.

                                           --Franz Kafka

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 Boston, Mass. (Charles May and Son Company). But Father, who almost never spoke of this, hastened to add that we were not Jews. Great Grandfather "just pretended" to be a Jew in order to "fool the Jews." (Father may have been told this by his father who was his only parent after an early age.)

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 Germany where my ancestors originated, Giessen in the Rheinland in the state of Hessen. I thought that a town such as Giessen seemed an unlikely place of origin for Jews, who would have been in large cities such as Berlin or Frankfurt. But I have been informed that there are several people researching the subject of Jews in Giessen on the Jewishgen, the largest on-line Jewish genealogical service. Genealogical research (with the help of a professional Jewish genealogist among others) has revealed that my great great grandfather, who was born ca.1811, probably in the Hessen, was named Ferdinand May or possibly Ferdinand Mayer. I thought that the given name "Ferdinand" sounded neither Germanic nor Jewish, but I was mistaken. In the article in The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia on the Jewish MAY family, the given name "Ferdinand" occurs throughout. Moreover there is a reference to a "Memoir and Genealogy of Ferdinand Mayer, 1832-1971" in the list of 8000 Jewish surnames published in Finding Our Fathers by Dan Rottenberg. "Ferdinand" is also listed as a Jewish surname.

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 England and the Queen. Obviously these four were among Ferdinand May's most trusted friends and associates in his adopted country. Their names were as follows: Morris Hart, Henry Levin, Benjamin Cohen, and David Israel! Coincidentally all four names were "Jewish," during a time in which Jews were more separate from the non-Jewish world than they are today. I suppose that Father might have claimed that they were "just pretending" to be Jews in order to "fool the Jews," if there actually were any real (non-pretending) Jews to fool!

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 England and to learn the names of his parents and maybe discover a Hebraic family name. Also I would like to learn if the family surname was originally "Mayer" in Germany.

How does one obtain a kippah?


Richard W. May


Genealogical Discoveries

Initially I did not realize the significance of the London street addresses on Ferdinand’s naturalization papers. Ferdinand’s address at that time was Bishopsgate Street. His character witnesses’ addresses were as follows: Mr. Levin’s address was also Bishopsgate Street, David Israel’s was on Whitechapel, Morris Hart’s (a dealer in foreign fruit) was also on Whitechapel, and Benjamin Cohen’s (a commission agent) was at Bevis Marks Saint Mary Avenue. Each of these addresses is in London’s East End, i.e., the well-known Jewish quarter!

Later the May family moved to13 Wilson St., near the Clerkenwell area, which is noted for its Jewish watchmakers (London and Its Peoples: A Social History from the Medieval Period to the Present Day, by John Richardson). According to the 1863 London street directory three doors down at 16 Wilson St. was Reuben Levy and Company, wholesale watch manufacturers. It is not unlikely that Charles learned the art of watch making here.

On the English naturalization papers in 1856 of Ferdinand May in London he states explicitly that he is substituting Declarations in lieu of Oaths in accordance with an Act of Parliament passed in the sixth year of his late Majesty William the Fourth, which permitted the abolition of unnecessary Oaths. I thought that this was a strange concern until I learned the following: In 1851 David Salomons was elected M.P. for Greenwich, took his seat without taking the Oath and was fined 500 pounds sterling. In 1858 a Jewish Oath Bill was passed by Parliament permitting Jews to sit. Baron Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jewish M.P., after having been twice elected by the City of London as their member and not allowed to take his seat (from The History Of The Jews In London, by Adler, page 238, Chronological Annals, Jewish Publication Society).

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 Boston, Mass. business directory by 1866 (one year after his immigration to the U.S.A.) as a watchmaker. According to the 1861 London census, Charles had learned to practice the trade of watch making by age sixteen.

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 London, England, having departed from Giessen in the State of the Hessen. Giessen was the chief city of the upper Hessen. It had a university and at least two synagogues. (Germany did not exist as a unified nation until 1871.) Prior to this in what is now Germany the family surname had been Mayer (Meyer), since 1809 when Jews in the Hessen adopted surnames. Before 1809 in the Hessen most but not all Jews used patronymic names. Spelling was not standardized in the early 19th century. Hence, a name could have several spellings, which were all considered equivalent and none incorrect. So Mayer was equivalent to Meyer (among other variants) and both often occurred on the same record or document.

Charles May’s name on his Giessen birth record was Siegfried Karl Mayer, certainly sounding more Germanic than "Jewish". Charles on American vital records gave his mother’s name as Catherine May. This certainly doesn’t sound very Jewish. Her name in England was Kettchen May. In Germany her name was Kaetchen Mayer. Her maiden surname was Landauer. So Catherine May was Kaetchen Landauer Mayer!

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:

Ferdinand MEYER
Born: 25 March 1812 in Nierstein
Religion: Jewish
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)
Religion: Jewish
Profession: merchant

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.)

Related Reading

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.]