Memoir of an Irish Jew
Part 2

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


Obsession: How Many Ancestors Danced Under a Yarmulke?

I am the great grandson of a yarmulke-wearing Boston jeweler. He looked very Jewish, but was, of course, a gentile. My father assured me that we weren't Jewish. We just wore yarmulkes. Or some of us did, back then. Didn't most gentiles?

Incredibly I never questioned this until recently. How could one question ones father about his identity? (How could one identify with ones family?) How could we be Jews (or Christians, for that matter)? How could I be the other? How could I not be the other?

And, as in an indirect proof in Euclidean geometry, if one assumes the truth of the premise of my father's tale, i.e., that we were not Jewish, then contradictions and absurdities follow. But if one assumes the negation of his premise, i.e., that we were, in fact, Jewish, then every consequence is plausible.

How probable is it that a gentile could, merely by wearing a yarmulke, "fool" the turn-of-the-century immigrant Jewish community in Boston, Massachusetts, as to his status as an (presumably) observant Jew? And, perhaps, more importantly, why would he do so, even if he could?

The fundamental assumption of my father's narrative that my great grandfather wore a yarmulke "to fool the Jews", that is, the Jewish clientele of the family jewelry business, seems to be absurdly flawed. Even if one were to assume that Jews bought jewelry exclusively from Jewish jewelers (never from gentile jewelers) and that they completely ignored free market considerations, such as price differences, what percentage of the population in Boston was Jewish in the period from 1890 to 1930? (Between 1877-1879 the first census of American Jews conducted by the Union of Hebrew Congregations determined that only 0.6 percent of the population in the Northeast was Jewish.) Probably Jews comprised less than 2 percent of the population, i.e., most prospective clients of any jeweler would be gentiles by a ratio of more than forty-nine to one! (In Boston Irish Catholics may have predominated.) Unless, of course, the Jewish 1or 2 percent of the population of that time period in Boston spent more money on jewelry than the non-Jewish 98 or 99 percent of the population! This seems exceedingly unlikely. I have never even heard this claimed as a stereotype. And, of course, a jeweler who wore a yarmulke would risk alienating the prospective clients who were of the 98 or 99 percent gentile majority or at least the anti-Semitic ones. So, wherein would consist the business advantage of a gentile jeweler impersonating a Jew in a predominantly gentile milieu, even if he could do so successfully?

According to my research, a Reform Jew of the classical period in question would not have worn a yarmulke ever. A non-Orthodox Jew who wore a yarmulke would have been a Conservative Jew. But a Conservative Jew would have worn a yarmulke only when praying or studying sacred texts (What Is a Jew, by Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer; The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, Keith Krim, General Editor) And a Conservative Jew was more likely to be of Eastern European origin, rather than German. Only a male Orthodox Jew wore a yarmulke continuously throughout his waking hours, including his work.

Hence, I conclude that great grandfather was seemingly either a German Orthodox Jew who wore a yarmulke in his business or a gentile who impersonated an Orthodox Jew, because allegedly this conferred some mysterious business advantage that he would not enjoy if he were perceived as a gentile. But would not a turn-of-the-century Orthodox Jew be precisely the most difficult variety of Jew for a gentile to impersonate? Rather, why not impersonate a German Reform Jew, who would have been a much easier study to pass as? But no, a Reform Jew of the era would not have worn a yarmulke ever, even when praying or studying sacred texts, certainly not at work. Even in the seemingly unlikely case that at that time and place it was somehow essential to be Jewish to prosper in the Jewelry business, since great grandfather "looked and sounded very Jewish," according to Father, then his wearing a yarmulke would have been rather superfluous, if its sole purpose was deception. Ockham’s razor may also be tentatively applied here. Given various possible explanations for an occurrence, which are all equally supported by the evidence, the simplest explanation is to be preferred as the most probable. Doesn't it seem more internally consistent and logical to conclude that my great grandfather wore a yarmulke in his jewelry business, because he was an Orthodox Jew?

Oddly, grandfather was never mentioned as having worn a yarmulke, only great grandfather. The implication by omission was that he had not worn one. During this period of history the number, relative percentage in the population, and the financial status of Jews in the Northeast were all increasing. Hence, their buying power was also increasing. So, if it had been necessary for great grandfather to wear a yarmulke at work in his business in order to "fool the Jews," why would not this stratagem of deception have been continued by his son? Grandfather, who was an elementary school dropout, worked in the family jewelry business with his yarmulke-wearing father, even as an adolescent. How could it be possible that the son of an Orthodox Jew (who wore a yarmulke at work) wore no yarmulke, as they worked side by side? Great grandfather and grandfather were either Jews or imposters as Father alleged. Imposters, in order to pass as Jews, would necessarily have emulated what actual (in this case Orthodox) Jews would have done. In either case grandfather would also necessarily have worn a yarmulke, although, I think, probably only as a young man, before he assimilated. But maybe to admit this would have brought the "Jewishness" too close to my father, i.e., his own father had also worn a yarmulke.

It was suggested to me that at the turn-of-the-century the wholesale jewelry business may have been controlled by Jews. Hence, in order for a retail jeweler to obtain a "good deal" from a wholesale jeweler, it might have been necessary for him to be a Jew. If, in fact, this had been the case, then theoretically it could explain the case of a gentile, who was a retail jeweler, pretending to be a Jew in order to obtain the best possible price from the Jewish wholesale jeweler. This possibility never occurred to me. And I could think of no convincing refutation of the argument. But it did not fit with my father’s explanation that the Jewish customers accepted my great grandfather as a Jew. Years later I learned that we had no problem dealing with the wholesale jewelers. In fact my great grandfather was a wholesale jeweler. He was also, as I correctly inferred, an Orthodox Jew (who had for the most part assimilated).

I learned that German Jews of that period were generally middle class business owners or professionals, whereas the immigrant eastern European Jews tended to have been much poorer. Many of them had lived in the Lower East Side of New York City and had worked for very low wages in the garment district, under deplorable conditions. But on the extremely rare occasions when father spoke of this, he implied that the Jews were very wealthy. Even more strangely, I discovered that we were the Jews of whom he spoke, no doubt extremely wealthy!

I also learned that Charles May had an aunt on his mother’s side, who was from the Goldschmidt family of Bad Hamburg, a very prominent family of Court Jews or Hof Jueden, as they were called in German. And, he had an uncle, Rabbi Dr. Benedikt Samuel Levi, also on his mother’s side, who was the Chief Rabbi of the Grand Duchy of the Hessen! Doubtless, all were "just pretending" to be Jews, in order to "fool the Jews"! But, Father certainly met the Nazis’ criterion for being a Jew, i.e., that of having at least one Jewish grandparent. And, perhaps, so did I, depending upon the identity of descent of Charles’ wife Millie May nee’ Laster or other genealogical ambiguities.

Yizkor (Remembrance)

Charles May's father was Ferdinand Mayer. Ferdinand's grandfather, Abraham Mayer, his wife's father, Isaak Simon Landauer, and both of her grandfathers, Simon Abraham Landauer, and Salomon Michel from Gelnhausen, were protected Jews (Schutzjueden or vergleideter Jueden), a phrase whose meaning was unknown to me. The precise meaning of this term varied with the particular historical context. Jews did not have the full rights of citizenship in the various states which now comprise Germany, until varying dates in the 19th century. Generally, a protected Jew was one who could afford to pay an exorbitant Jew tax (Schutzgelt or protection money) to obtain a letter of protection (Schutzbrief or Geleit) for a specified period of time from the local secular authorities at various levels of government, which allowed him and his family to settle in a particular area or city and practice a profession or to set up a business or to trade there. Those who could not afford to pay to obtain discriminatory protection by or from the local baron or authorities were known as unprotected Jews (unvergleideter Jueden) or, more often, simply as Jewish beggars (Betteljueden), who were forced to wander the locality living on charity or to work for a protected Jew. In some cases only a protected Jew could obtain permission to marry. A religious marriage of an unprotected Jew would not be recognized by the local secular authorities. The number of Jews granted protected status was limited in order to restrict the growth of the Jewish population in the area. (Sources: the Jewishgen archives)

Abraham Mayer (Meyer), who was born with the patronymic name Abraham the son of Meyer, lived in (Frankfurt-) Hedderdheim at least as early as 1765,according to a Muster List. He married Theresia Philippina Hess, the daughter of Isaak Hess who died in Heppenheim, and Babett, whose maiden surname is unknown. (The surname "Hess" is an Ashkenazic name which means someone originally from the state of the Hessen, Germany, according to the previously mentioned book by Dan Rottenberg.) Theresia was born in 1724 and lived one hundred years, dying in 1824! The Mayers moved to Mannheim sometime after 1778. In 1779 Abraham Mayer is listed as being freed from making payments as a protected Jew in Heddernheim. No longer being required to make the payments implied that he had become poor by this time. His daughter's death record states that he was a merchant in Mannheim while still alive. Hence, it is likely that he died in Mannheim.

Abraham and Theresia Philipinna Mayer had seven children according to a (Nierstein) Muster List of 1817. David (the son of ) Abraham was born in 1760 and nothing else is known. Meyer was born in 1761 and he went to Holland. Judas was born in 1763 and remained in Mannheim. Judith was born in 1763 or 1765 and died in 1838 in Nierstein. She married Benedickt Bloom in 1788 and went to Nierstein. Wilhelm, Ferdinand's father, was born in 1767 and it is not known when or where he died. Presumably both Wilhelm and his wife, Juliette, lived until at least 1826, since neither is referred to as deceased on the 1826 death record of their daughter, Babet. Hirsch was born in 1764 or 1768 and died in 1834.He went to Ober-Ingelheim and changed his name to Phillip Mayer. His first wife was Schoenchen, daughter of David Feist. His second wife was Esther, daughter of Samuel Loeb. She became known as Therese. Finally, Jacob was born in 1770 and he went to Mainz.

In 1796 Wilhelm Mayer married Juliette Hamburg, who was born in 1770 and was from Frankfurt. His profession or business was trade. In 1817 in Nierstein his wealth or assets was listed as 1000.florin. He also possessed two tillage gardens. Wilhelm and his family, including Theresia Philippina, the widow of Abraham Mayer, left Mannheim for Nierstein sometime between 1805 and July of 1809. They had ten children of whom Ferdinand was the youngest, according to the 1817 Nierstein Muster List. Therese was born in 1797. Maximilian was born in 1799 and died after 1864. Max Mayer and his family were granted permission to settle in Frankfurt in 1835, according to an 1864 application to start his own wine dealership or wine store in Frankfurt (at the age of sixty-five). Margaretha was born in 1800. Babet (probably named after her great grandmother, Philippina's mother) was born in 1801 in Mannheim and died unmarried at age twenty-four in 1826 in Nierstein. Simon was born in Mannheim at the end of 1802 and died in Frankfurt on 8 November 1883, at 81 years old, a widower, living in Frankfurt am Main, Jewish and, independently wealthy, according to his death certificate. He had a son named Maximilian who was a merchant. He was married to a Catherine Salomon who may have been his second wife. Friederich was born in 1807 in Mannheim and died in 1826 in Nierstein at the age of nineteen. No wife is mentioned on his death certificate. Judith was born in 1800 or 1806. Henriette was born in 1810. (A Henriette Levi neé Mayer, the first wife of the Rabbi of the Province, Dr. Benedikt Samuel Levi, died on 22 December 1842 at age 36 in Giessen. The birth records for some of her children indicate that she was from Mannheim. At the time Ferdinand’s sister, Henriette Mayer, was born, the Mayer family was known to be still living in Mannheim. Henriette’s first child was named Samuel Wilhelm Levi, presumably after her father, Wilhelm Mayer. Ferdinand was a witness at the birth of the Rabbis and Henriette’s fourth child. Dr. Levi, who signed some documents as "Rabbi of the Grand Duchy Of the Hessen", was a witness on the occasion of the birth of Ferdinand’s first son, Isidor Wilhelm Mayer, 6 December 1842. Hence, Rabbi Dr. Benedikt Samuel Levi’s wife was almost certainly Ferdinand’s sister Henriette Mayer. Senior Rabbi Dr. Levi, who was the son of Rabbi Samuel Wolf Levi, was born on 14 October 1806 in Worms and died in Giessen on 4 May 1899 at the age of 92 years. He was active as a Rabbi from 1829 through ca.1896. Dr. Levi had the title of "Grandducal Provincial Rabbi for the Province of Hessen." Kaetchen Mayer nee’ Landauer’s paternal grandmother was Feile Levi of Giessen. Hence, it is not unlikely, given the Jewish practice at that time of marrying relatives, that Dr. Levi was also a blood relative of Ferdinand’s wife, Kaetchen.) Johanna, apparently also known as Jeanne, was born in 1809 or 1811 in Nierstein. Lastly Ferdinand was born on 26 February 1812 in Nierstein and died on 14 March 1890 in London, England.

Ferdinand Mayer and his wife, Kaetchen, had eight children, the first seven of whom were born in Giessen in the Hessen (Germany): Rosalie (whose marriage to Luis Heim was previously mentioned), born 4 March 1839; Friedericke Luise, born 5 February 1841; Isidor Wilhelm, born 6 December 1842; Siegfried Karl ("Charles"), born 14 December 1844; Emma, born 25 April 1848, married on 8 July 1880 at the Islington Registry Office (a civil marriage), aged 26, according to the certificate (daughter of Ferdinand May, independent) Charles Adolph Fieber, aged 41, a boot manufacturer (son of Carl Fieber, a merchant), in the 1881 London census at 42 Leicester Square a residence is listed with Charles A. Fieber, aged 42, boot maker, as the head of household, his wife named Emma, and boarders consisting of a Ferdinand May, aged 69, retired, and his wife, Katharine, aged 69, both born in Germany, a surgeon, born in Ireland, a young man with no occupation, born in Paris, and their nineteen year old servant girl; Georg, born 26 June 1850 (George May) lived in 1894 on Highbury New Park, London, a road of which a professional researcher (after checking the 1891 census) said, "looks like a very high class area - lots of servants"; Moritz, born 6 January 1853; and lastly Anna who was born in England ca.1854. It is interesting to note the complete absence of any Hebraic names for the children, possibly excepting "Anna." It appears that only Charles emigrated from England to the U.S.A.

The following letter (translated from the German) was written by Ferdinand’s oldest brother, Maximilian Mayer, who was a merchant born in the Hessen in 1799, probably in Mannheim. It was written little more than two years after Ferdinand immigrated to London, England. It seems that Max was quite involved with the local Jewish community rather than assimilating and apostate, as was apparently the case for his youngest brother, Ferdinand.

(To) the Mayor in Nierstein, Mr.Sandmann

Frankfurt, April 6, 1855

Dear Friend!

I previously answered your esteemed letter concerning the matter of the Synagogue in Nierstein; however, I wanted to wait for the right moment to introduce the likes of Dr. Stein, which I have also done but unfortunately without a favorable outcome, as he let it be known he could not do anything about the matter. This man is generally very bad-tempered because a lot was lost in this manner due to his sweeping reform. It is not advisable to appeal to other philanthropists at this moment, because due to the hard winter and high price of food these people will be very busy. Besides, it is inconceivable to me how the Jewish community, although poor, could sink so far as to be incapable of paying the trifling sum of the rent. It seems to me more a matter of indifference and negligence in regards to religious life, than good will. I am not speaking here about the old people who are not able to earn very much, but about the young men, who as I hear are able to support themselves pretty well. If they have any religious feeling whatsoever, could they truly not afford a small weekly contribution? Indeed they could and you will concur with me in this regard dear friend. Apart from that, I will notify you if I hear anything encouraging.

Live well, and please be assured of my esteem and friendship.

Yours truly,

Max Mayer


I find some consolation in the fact that the eminent M.I.T. mathematician Norbert Wiener, the inventor of cybernetics, also did not know that he was Jewish! I learned this in an anthology of essays on Jewish topics, possibly the Jewish Almanac. Professor Wiener's father was Jewish, but his mother was Episcopalian. His mother did not want her son to know that he was Jewish. So his father agreed to raise him without knowledge of his Jewish ancestry and culture. Lack of knowledge of his Jewish roots was especially ironic in Norbert Wiener's case, because his father, who taught at Harvard, had written several acclaimed scholarly books on the Yiddish language!

Less than five years ago the only genealogy, which was known to me was that my father's father was William. He was my only living grandparent at the time of my birth. William died on 3 January 1949 (two months before my fifth birthday), at age seventy-one. Although I met him, I have no memory of him. I have never seen a photograph of William.

Grandfather was an elementary school dropout who was said to have read a book per day. According to tradition, he had a very large vocabulary, corrected people's grammar and spoke professorially. He was the son of Charles May And Son Company. He was also a violin player; a fiddler on the roof of the family wholesale jewelry business.

William’s death notice read as follows: Framingham News (Massachusetts), Wednesday, January 5, 1949, Deaths & Funerals: Private Services For William May - Private funeral services were conducted this afternoon by Rev. John O. Fisher of the First Parish Unitarian Church (emphasis added) for William May, 71, retired Boston jeweler of 141 Hollis St., who collapsed and died Monday morning, at Bigelow Chapel, Mt. Auburn, Cambridge. Cremation followed. (Perhaps it is interesting to note that cremation is prohibited under Jewish law.)

Arrangements were in charge of Hollander-Boyle Funeral Service. (Strangely, there is no mention that he was survived by three of his four children from his first marriage, by his grandchildren, and also by his second wife. At least I assume that she was his wife, although I never could find a record of their marriage.)

Later I discovered that William was named after his father's (Charles') oldest brother, Isidor Wilhelm. I further learned that the name "Isidor" was more or less equivalent to the name "Israel" in Jewish naming patterns. (Etymologically the name "Israel" means contender with G-d. "Israel" also refers to a common Jew who is neither a Levite nor a Cohen. During the Nazi regime, "Israel" was the name that all Jewish males in Germany were forced to take as a middle name on any official documents or identification. The mandate for compulsory given names for Jews began on 17 August 1938.)

Isidor Wilhelm was named after his own grandfather, Wilhelm Mayer, whose name at birth in ca.1767 (before Jews were required to take surnames) was the patronymic name "Wilhelm the son of Abraham". So William, my grandfather, was named after an Israel Wilhelm who was, himself, named after a Wilhelm the son of Abraham!

But who was William? And who are we? Remembering with awareness of various levels of irony the response of Bodhidharma (the Indian monk who brought Buddhism from India to China) to King Wu's question, "Who are you?" -- "I don't know"! What is our identity, if we awaken in the moment from the stories of our lives and the dreams of our culture? Why did I enter this incarnation as a Jew, by Reform criteria at least (my maternal line, consisting of orphans who are descended from orphans, does not lack ambiguity), without knowledge of this, stripped of so much of my heritage and cultural identity? In attempting to uncover my Jewish roots am I "undoing" a pattern of karma of my ancestors or laboring to "undo" my own pattern of karma from a previous life or another life in which I negated or denied my Jewish identity?

It is interesting to note that traditionally most groups in the ancient world traced their membership and descent patrilineally. The Jews (Israelites) were originally no exception to this rule, as is illustrated by various Biblical stories. The practice of including patrilineal descent as a determinant of identity is, of course, recognized and continued by Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews, even today. Between 200 C.E. - 300 C.E. (the precise date is unknown) the Jews changed to the principle of matrilineal descent. The change to matrilineal descent has been called an historic misinterpretation (from an academic rather than a religious perspective) of a certain Mishnaic rule (M. Qiddushin 3:12).

But, perhaps, I'm only a "homeopathic" Jew, not of pure stock? Do I need to have reverse rhinoplasty? No, being of Jewish descent is a lineage not a percentage, not a blood disorder, as the Nazis maintained. And, in any case, homeopathy teaches us that even a miniscule dosage can have a profound effect!

["Memoir of an Irish Jew: A Letter to a Rabbi" appeared in Noesis #152, September 2001.]