Solomon Hays Controversy

Solomon Hays and his family were excommunicated from Shearith Israel in New York City due to causing a disturbance over a simple window.

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In October of 1756, the hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City read a proclamation from his pulpit declaring that no member of the congregation should have “Conversation Correspondance or Commasty” with Solomon Hays. Thenceforward, Mr. Hays, his wife and children were excommunicated from Shearith Israel–officially cut off from religious interaction with members of the New York Jewish community. What had Hays done to merit such punishment? The hazzan explained that Hays was being expelled “because he has Candallise [Scandalized] us among the Christens.” In Yiddish, he had caused one of America’s first recorded shande far di goyim.

The affair, which has become known as “The Battle of Balcony,” began at Kol Nidre services on September 14, 1755. Historians Sheldon and Judith Godfrey describe that evening as “unseasonably hot and muggy and the weather unstable.” Solomon Hays’s wife Gitlah joined the other women of the congregation in the upstairs gallery. She sat in her assigned seat next to an open window. The window sash had been taken from its hinges to allow what little circulation of air was possible on such a stifling evening. According to the Godfreys, “Suddenly a violent storm arose. The rain poured in the open window drenching Mrs. Hays . . . When she arrived home after the service, she reported the incident to her husband.”

Solomon Hays went to the synagogue the next morning, searched out the window sash and replaced it on its hinges so that his wife, when she resumed her place, would not receive another dousing. The morning, however, continued to be “hot and muggy” and the other women consigned to the gallery wished to open the window in order to allow a breath–any breath–of fresh air. Mrs. Hays closed the window. Her neighbors opened it. She closed it. They opened it again. She closed it again. And so forth.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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