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Jews in the Wild West

Reform & Orthodox at "High Noon"

by I. Harold Sharfman, from The First Rabbi

Of all the lively altercations between "Rabbi" and "Congregation," commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century, caused by Minhag America versus Minhag Ashkenaz, none in the East reached the high pitch of excitement as in that "Wild West" gunfight between Minister Moses May and officer A. [Abraham?] Waldman, of Beth Israel, Portland Oregon.

Founded in 1859, a succession of ministers followed. In 1860, 28-year-old Hermann Milton Bien of San Francisco served but a year. He removed to Virginia City, succeeded by a Reverend Herman P. Bories. In 1863 Dr. Julius Eckman of San Francisco was elected. He ministered for six years and returned to the city by the Golden Gate, succeeded by a Dr. Isaac Schwab who after two years was succeeded by Moses May.

Worship was conducted in the Orthodox manner. A visitor from New York described to Reverend Samuel Myer Isaacs, editor of the Messenger, how the services in Portland's Beth Israel were conducted "in the orthodox style, so that our correspondent fancied himself back again in Wooster Street Schul [Shaaray Tefila; Isaacs minister]."

Not rehiring Schwab split the community; seceders, possibly the Prussian element who preferred Minhag Polin, founded Ahavai Sholom [Lovers of Peace] congregation.

The hiring of May further exacerbated the conflicts within Beth Israel. Until the arrival of May the prayerbook Minhag Ashkenaz had been established as the form of worship. May opted for Minhag America, while the members were divided between Minhag Ashkenaz and the one created by the Board of Directors of Beth, Israel, Minhag Portland.

The Orthodox, favoring Minhag Ashkenaz sought to oust May, but for the moment he and Minhag Portland prevailed. The Orthodox, in seeking to fire May, accused him of

referring to the married women of his congregation as ladies of easy virtue, casting aspersions upon his own wife in public which received the "condemnation of Jew, Gentile and heathen" (heathen, referred to the Indian); outrageously slandering and blackmailing several members of the Congregation; condemning himself, by his own actions, as an immoral man and an unbeliever in the doctrines of Holy Writ; acting as a libertine and rake during a visit to San Francisco; calling the officers and members of the Congregation outlandish names; threatening to join the Unitarian Church in the event Mr. Philip Selling [Orthodox] were re-elected President; opening mail belonging to others for the purpose of slandering the authors of the letters; and when he was called a liar, black-guard, scoundrel and villain, he offered no word for his defense but walked away and therefore gave rise to the belief that he felt himself guilty of these charges....

The Reform-minded Board of Directors absolved May of all charges. May, now determined to introduce Minhag America, created an atmosphere in the community, explosive, not merely figuratively. 

A. Waldbaum of Beck & Waldman, President-elect of Beth Israel, a strictly Orthodox man, opposed the officers on the issue of changing the Minhag Ashkenaz worship, but he directed his sharpest barbs against minister Moses May. Arguments between President and Rabbi had been ongoing throughout the decade of the seventies, ever since May's arrival in 1872.

The climax in the struggle between May and Waldman erupted in a fist-fight and shoot-out beneath the window of the magnificent Esmond Hotel in the center of town where President Rutherford B. Hayes was staying during his visit to Portland.

Fortunately, the U.S. President was not out on Front Street that Friday morning, October 1, 188o, at 9:30 a.m. Minister May was conversing with Isaac May, possibly a relation. The May's, Isaac and the Reverend Moses, standing beneath the suite of President Hayes, were on Front Street in front of May's store, Hexter & May, located on the ground floor of the hotel, facing Front Street, adjacent to the store of Beck & Waldman.

A. Waldman of Beck & Waldman, president of the synagogue, approached from behind. He grabbed minister May by the collar, pelted him in the eyes, smashing his spectacles. The rabbi whipped out a pistol from the folds of his frock coat, and shot wildly at the heart of the president of the "House of Israel." He missed the mark but his second shot came closer, tearing through Waldman's coat. As May reloaded, one Morris Isaacs rushed forward and restrained the rabbi before he could replace the bullets and fire a third time. Different versions were given to the press; each contestant presenting his version of the encounter.

The Daily Standard of Portland, Oregon, carried the story under the headline PASTORAL RELATIONS and subheadline, How Rabbi May And Brother Waldman Serve The Lord.

Friday morning at 9:30 the hilarious pop of the little pistol was heard on Front Street. People who rushed in that direction saw the Rev. Rabbi [M.] May and Mr. [A.] Waldman, of Beck & Waldman, engaged in a melee which resulted something in this style: The Rabbi shot twice at Waldman, and tore a piece out of his coat, and came near killing an honest man, and Mr. Waldman put a pair of beautiful rings about the Rabbi's eyes....

It seems that while Rabbi May and [a] Mr. May, of Hexter & May, were standing on the street engaged in a close conversation. Mr. Waldman walked up to them, unnoticed by either and, grabbing the Rabbi by the coat collar, struck him two severe blows in the face, smashing his spectacles and injuring him severely. The Rabbi then dived for this temporal ammunition and fired at Waldman twice ... He was then knocked down by Mr. Morris Isaacs, and he voluntarily threw his pistol into the store of Hexter & May. Waldman then bounced [pounced] on his adversary and administered a severe castigation before they could be separated....

Waldman ... a well known and highly respected citizen ... was arrested in the afternoon by Constable Sprague and taken before Judge Bybee and fined for assault, but, as far as can be learned, Rabbi May was not molested.

A reporter of the Daily Standard visited both parties and obtained their statements.

Waldman said "that for a long time trouble had been brewing in the congregation over the doings of the Rabbi, who was not only deficient mentally, but also morally, and who would have long ago been kicked out of his charge but for the sympathy which was expressed for his family . . ." He added: "It is reported, though I cannot vouch for its truth, that the Rabbi fired at his wife one day, indeed, the marks of the bullet can be seen in his own house . . ."

May told the reporter that "he was called a liar by Mr. Waldman ... received an anonymous letter threatening that he would be killed with the same pistol which an evil and false report said he had once fired at his own wife He added: "In religious matters Waldman annoyed him continually, interfering with him and wishing to teach the religion of Waldman instead of that of Moses [May?], and because he did not, has been trying to ruin him by setting adrift reports about the moral standing, which the Rabbi characterized as false, shameful, and hollow."

Concerning the altercation, May said that while engaged in conversation with a friend he was grabbed roughly from behind and received two terrible blows in his eyes. His glasses were smashed. Not knowing who assailed him, he drew his pistol and dazed and blinded, fired in the direction of the blows.

I would have killed if I could," said the Rabbi, "and would have done so to even my father or brother had they treated me as this man Waldman did...."

The Daily Oregonian likewise reported the tale of the gun-totin' rabbi and editorialized: "Fortunately, neither shot took effect. Parties interfered and separated the belligerents. . ."

Reports of this confrontation between Rabbi and President, soon reached the eastern United States.

Isaac M. Wise writing under the caption A VERKEHRTE WELT [A Topsy-Turvy World] noted: "Mr. Waldman was not hurt, but the rabbi was soundly thrashed for being such a poor marksman . . ." As for May, Wise concluded, "though not recognized as a rabbi but merely tolerated, on account of relationship, as a shatz matz [religious factotum] ... and we can not understand how a man of a family can take his life in his own hands, especially when he knows as little how to pull a trigger as he knows of the Shulchan Aruch [the standard Jewish code of laws]."

Wise concluded: "There is of course, a vacancy in the Portland congregation, and poor May will either have to go to peddling or join the shooting Baptists. It is a pity that Israel should have produced a shooting clergyman, and still more a pity that the Christians in Portland believe that May is a high priest in the synagogue . . ."

Wise was ungrateful. May's fray came as an immediate and direct result of his attempt to introduce Wise's prayer book, and he fired his six-shooter in favor of the American Way—The Reform prayerbook Minhag America.