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The board investigated and absolved May of all charges. But the adventure got May’s blood up, and he was now determined that Beth Israel was going to convert to Minhag America, whether the Orthodox members liked it or not.
It became official in 1879, the year before Oregon’s first (and hopefully only) Rabbinical gunfight. By then, a business owner and Orthodox congregant named A. Waldman had been elected President of Beth Israel.
WALDMAN AND MAY had been cordial enemies ever since May first came to Portland in 1872 to be Beth Israel’s rabbi. But during the days before the gunfight, relations between the two had become really sour. In his yearly report on the Sunday school of which he served as secretary, Waldman had written, “The progress of our school would have been more encouraging but for the ungentlemanly conduct of Rabbi May toward both scholars and teachers.”
May, incensed, had gone to Waldman’s clothing store, stationed himself in front of the door, and shouted, “You’re a liar!” into it. Waldman had shot back that he couldn’t do it in the store, but at his very next opportunity he would beat May up.
And apparently Waldman’s very next opportunity came along at 9:30 the next morning, on the street directly beneath the hotel suite occupied by the President of the United States.
AT THAT FATEFUL HOUR, Rabbi May was standing in the street conversing with a friend when President Waldman approached him from behind and, without warning, seized his coat, spun him around, and smashed his glasses against his face with two full-powered punches.
Half blinded and wild with pain and rage, Rabbi May pulled a pistol out of his frock-coat pocket and opened fire. Most likely he was armed with a double-barreled derringer, because he had only two shots on tap. The first one was a clean miss; the second shot tore through Waldman’s coat sleeve but missed him.
Then, as May fumbled for cartridges, a bystander tackled him to the ground and disarmed him, at which point Waldman recovered from the shock and pounced upon him. More bystanders had to get involved to drag him off his disarmed enemy. Finally a policeman arrived and arrested them both.
In court, Waldman was fined for assault; after all, he had started it. As for May, if any charges were filed against him, I haven’t been able to learn what they were. Most likely, “discharging a firearm within city limits” was not yet a crime in Portland in 1880.
But he didn’t exactly get off scot-free. Rabbi Moses May left his position immediately; it’s obvious that he was asked to step down. The board bought out the balance of his two-year contract to the tune of $1,200, and he left town. Everyone understood that the provocation had been great, but as Rabbi Wise himself (the author of the Minhag America) later wrote in his magazine, American Israelite — “did you ever hear of a rabbi carrying a pistol?” — “There is, of course, a vacancy in the Portland Congregation,” Wise added, “and poor May will either have to go to peddling or join the shooting Baptists.”
Waldman, who was entirely uninjured in the fight, paid his fine and carried on with his quest to keep Beth Israel Orthodox. It was to no avail; Beth Israel never did officially switch back to the Minhag Ashkenaz, although the Orthodox members battled on for another 20 years.
President Rutherford Hayes, who most likely didn’t see the gunfight but was definitely endangered by Rabbi May’s wild flying pistol bullets flitting about the street a dozen feet from his window, left the hotel as if nothing had happened an hour later to visit some local notables. He gave a speech to about 9,000 Portlanders at the Mechanics’ Pavilion that evening. Over the next few days he visited an Indian school in Forest Grove, celebrated his 58th birthday on board the sternwheeler Wide West, and attended another gala reception in The Dalles. By Oct. 7 he had moved on to the Washington Territory, and at the end of the month, he was back in Astoria, catching a steamer headed south to San Francisco and eventually back home to the White House.