Our American Family – Episode 6: The Mays
NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of articles about a new documentary series entitled Our American Family available via Amazon Prime. Our American Family seeks to document our American family heritage, one family at a time, and inspire viewers to capture their own family stories – before those voices are gone. Click HERE to view any or all of the episodes and to get a FREE TRIAL of Amazon Prime.
Overview of Our American Family: The Mays
In Our American Family: The Mays, courage brought 17-year-old Jacob May to the US from Germany in 1879 in search of a better life. That same courage enabled his family to rescue 200 Jews from Nazi Germany. Deeply committed to one another, bolstered by good humor, theirs is a story of fearless hope and courage.
Commentary on Our American Family: The Mays
While watching Our American Family: The Mays I was reminded of my own German immigrant family and the values they brought with them to the United States: hard work, education, playing fair and honest and more. Many families share these same values, but the May family not only found financial success, they were able to balance business with successful growth of a family during the early 20th century.
I grew up in the Borscht Belt of New York with a large Jewish population. When I was younger, I never realized there might be Jewish communities outside of New York, let alone in Nashville, Tennessee. In The Mays, we learn how Jacob May the patriarch arrived in 1879 from Germany, settled in New Hampshire as a peddler, and then built a successful hosiery business. In 1895 when an opportunity to expand his business with a move to the South, Jacob moved his family to Nashville. The Mays went on to build a thriving factory with hundreds of employees and products carried by major chain department stores.
As with many immigrant families, the Mays soon found the opportunity to build a successful family over the years. While son Dan pursuing a more secular lifestyle and ensuring the financial success for the family, son Mortimer ensured that the Jewish identity of the family endured. In addition, Mortimer helped to rescue many people from persecution in Germany during the 1930s.
The Mays as a family have become a success story due to the pursuit of the values still held dear by their present-day descendants: hard work, fair play, education, and the search for balance between business and home life.
Interview with Steve Young, Producer of Our American Family
Note: I had the opportunity to conduct an e-mail interview recently with Steve Young who produces the Our American Family series. Here are the questions and answers related to The Mays episode and the series in general.
Q: In Our American Family: The Mays we see an immigrant family from Germany find success in business and in building a family. The Mays seem to have found “balance” between business and family, especially with the phrase “You make a living, but you make a life.” In the series, even with families of lesser means, how difficult was it to find and maintain that balance?
I think it was difficult then and it is difficult now. What I take away from the May family’s example is that it requires intentional effort to maintain a balance between work and family, particularly when work is such an all-consuming focus. For the Mays, that relentless focus was passed down through the generations and for families of lesser means, the emphasis on hard work was a means of survival. In both cases, and for us today, it comes down to remembering the all-important “why.” Why are we here? Why are we doing this? Ultimately, the answer is for our families both now and in generations to come. Making time to be together, and as the Mays point out, making time to laugh together, is essential.
Q: Many Americans don’t associate the Jewish diaspora with the American South, yet in fact there is a long history of Jewish immigrants settling in Tennessee and other southern states. In working with the descendants of Jacob and Rebecca May, how has identification with their Jewish heritage carried through to the present time?
The May family is very proud of their Jewish heritage and many of their closest relationships are with descendants of other Jewish families that were part of the early Nashville community. Their legacy of rescuing relatives and friends from the holocaust is well-known in Nashville, as is their reputation for being deeply involved community citizens.
Q: This episode is the first one in which we see strong ties remaining with relatives in the “old country.” Jacob’s 1905 trip back to Germany was vital to maintaining contact with family that would then help rescue many of them from persecution some thirty years later. While working on The Mays, did most descendants you interviewed realize the importance of this rescue mission? How has it factored into their family history?
I would first point out that the family was able to maintain ties in the early 1900s with the old country because they achieved a level of affluence which allowed them to go back. That said, their commitment to return later on multiple occasions to rescue family members and friends ahead of the Holocaust is a remarkable act of devotion and sacrifice. The legacy of this choice has resonated through the generations and shaped their sense of identity. This story from grandson Ben May’s childhood is particularly poignant and clearly made an impact on him:
Want to be a part of Our American Family? Submit Your Application
If you are interested in having your family’s story considered for the Our American Family project, please review their requirements and submit an online application HERE.
Help Support Our American Family
Our American Family is a project of Legacy Filmworks, a non-profit organization, and your tax-deductible contributions are greatly appreciated to help the project continue – thank you for your support! Click HERE to donate.
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