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In October of 1756, the hazzan (cantor) 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, or scandal in front of the gentiles.
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’ 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.
The other women complained to some members of the junto, or Board of Elders, about Mrs. Hays’ intransigence. Moses Gomez, one of the elders, went up to the gallery and removed the window from its sash. According to the Godfreys, “Solomon Hays saw Moses Gomez taking the window outside and confronted him in the synagogue yard. Words passed between them while others came outside to lend their support.” Ultimately, Solomon Hays was “forcibly evicted from the yard” by several of the elders, including Moses Gomez’s father, Daniel.
Later that month, the Board of Elders fined Hays 20 shillings for causing a disturbance. In response — or retaliation — Hays brought charges in criminal court against the entire Board of Elders, accusing them of assault and battery against his person. Here was the excommunicable offense: Hays had used the courts as the public arena in which to wash the synagogue’s dirty laundry.
The case reached trial in October of 1756, thirteen months after the original incident and the same month that the hazzan announced Hays’s excommunication. After 19 days of hearings at which nine witnesses testified, the Elders were acquitted on all counts. Adding insult to injury, the court ordered Hays to pay the defendants’ legal costs.
This dispute had antecedents. Solomon Hays had conflicts with members of the New York Jewish community that preceded the Battle of the Balcony. According to the Godfreys, Hays earlier accused Daniel Gomez publicly of “charging a usurious rate of interest on a loan” he had given Hays. In early 1755, Hays also testified that two immigrant Jews who claimed to be born in Plymouth, England, and thus entitled to conduct business in English New York, had actually been born in Holland. For this apparently truthful testimony, the congregation accused Hays of being a “traitor” to his people. Soon after, the Battle of the Balcony and Hays’s dragging the Elders into court exhausted the community’s patience.
It was several years before Hays, his wife, and children were readmitted to the congregation and, even then, the bickering continued. Hays and his sons were accused of non-specific violations of the congregation’s rules and defiance of the parnas (president) and other members of the junto.
The historical record is too skimpy for us to know the merits of Hays’ charges that he was criminally manhandled by the junto. We can speculate that Hays had a personality that led him regularly into conflict that, within the Jewish community, was tolerated as “family business.” When Hays took his case to court — when he made it a matter of public record outside the Jewish community — he exhausted the community’s patience.
As early as 1755, it seems, American Jewry tried its best to downplay any notorious public behavior by an individual Jew for fear of bringing opprobrium on the group as a whole. As we have grown more at home in America in our own times, it appears that a majority of American Jews no longer worry that the actions of a co-religionist will taint the reputation of all.