The Martyr Rabbi and The Poet-Priest

by Hank Greenwald

“Hello, Father. My name is Abraham Laser,” said the man with the heavy, dark beard.

“Hello, Rabbi. I’m Father Ryan of St. Mary’s,” replied the bristly-haired priest.

Abraham Laser
Abram J. Ryan

The two men had noticed each other many times on the streets of Mobile. They would nod as if to recognize the sorrow-filled purpose that they shared. Their faces reflected the sadness of their work.

On this hot, humid day, the priest and the rabbi approached each other. Both men wore black and carried worn and tattered Bibles.

The smell of death was in the heat-filled air. It was 1870. The pestilence of the yellow fever epidemic was everywhere. Thousands had fled their homes in the beautiful, oak-adorned Alabama city to the surrounding hills.

To continue visiting and comforting their sick and dying congregants, both men had refused to leave Mobile.

The Laser Family
The Laser Family

The rabbi had sent his family away while he stayed in the plague-stricken environs.

Soon, a friendship formed…and a commonality of purpose. They walked side by side and visited their congregants together. Years later, Rose Laser, the Rabbi’s daughter, wrote, “In the midst of my father’s labors, there was always by his side or close at hand the dauntless Catholic priest.”  

Two teachers–leaders in their respective religions–had come together under harrowing circumstances to do good. The differences in their divergent backgrounds were never a consideration.

Rabbi Laser had immigrated from Germany. He had met and married his wife Lizetta in Maryland.  There, the young couple had begun a family, then ventured south to teach the Jewish faith. Their journey ended in Mobile, where Rabbi Laser taught Judaism and later formed one of the first synagogues in the South, Sha’arai Shomayim.

Father Abram Joseph Ryan had previously served as a chaplain in the Confederate Army.  He had arrived in Mobile during the summer of 1870, at the height of the epidemic. Later in his life, he would become a household name in The South, following the publication of his poetry. Known as “The Poet Priest” and later “The Poet Laureate of the Confederacy,” his happiest days were spent as pastor of Mobile’s St. Mary’s Church.

Thus, these two men of vastly different faiths and politics, in a time of the worst circumstances, joined in respect and a mutual desire to help others. Their genuine friendship bloomed and was recognized by the citizens of Mobile.

Rabbi Laser had died on the last day of the epidemic. His daughter, Rose Laser, later wrote, “When the plague added my father to its toll of victims, Father Ryan’s grief was as deep as any of the members of the Jewish congregation who had loved him during a lifetime.” Rose, who met Father Ryan years later, afterwards recalled that when “I told him I was the daughter of his old friend, his eyes filled with tears.”

Laser Monument, Magnolia Cemetery, Mobile

To the Mobile congregation and many others in Mobile, he became known as “The Martyr Rabbi”. A monument was built over his grave.  He was the first rabbi to be buried in the Jewish section of Magnolia Cemetery.


Author’s note: Rabbi Laser was my great grandfather. He became a hero during an epidemic, as have so many in America today. His friendship with Father Ryan was admired. In our times, perhaps working together toward common goals would make us stronger. E pluribus unum.

16 comments on “The Martyr Rabbi and The Poet-Priest

  1. Emilee Ahern

    May 2, 2021 at 5:42 pm

    Beautiful! Great story and great forward thinking. If only we could put others first. Rabbi Laser was my great grandfather, too!

  2. Jeanie Attenhofer

    May 16, 2021 at 10:18 pm

    Hi Hank, I spoke with Barbara Mc this evening and she told me about your stories because
    I like to write too. She also told me that you have been delving into your family’s genealogy.
    So have I. Loved your story. Just wanted to pop and and tell you so. Sorry I won’t be at
    the birthday part. If we lived closer, we would come.
    Hope the party is great.
    Take care and stay well!
    Jeanie Attenhofer

    • Thanks Jeanie. We will miss you. Would love to chat sometime. The ancestry research started in 1977. The writing is recent although I majored in English Lit at LSU. The pandemic at least gave me time to do some writing. Love and Peace.

  3. Jeanie Attenhofer

    May 17, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    We have something in common. I started my family research in about 1977 too. Have the Attenhofers traced back to 1531 in Switzerland. I’ve been working on
    my ancestors from my mom’s side of the family and have them back to the 1500s in Germany. I have Scotts and have a land grant from Yorktown dated 1642.Another
    Scottish line is a major brickwall.
    I did what you did during the pandemic wrote for my DAR Chapter and my Colonials Dames 17th Century Chapter. I’m the historian for both groups and I write
    tor their newsletter. Have also entered DAR essay contests and won 1st in State. Love to write. Get that talent from my mom.
    Have fun at the birthday party.
    Big Hugs, jeanie

  4. Robert Bilgrad

    May 25, 2021 at 6:41 pm

    Nicely prepared commentary to preserve memories and contributions of a notable family member. Hank, this was a very well done tribute to your great grandfather.

  5. Love your story. It really touched me. You definitely have inherited his spirit.

    Jeanie Landau Hearst.

  6. Very nice and well written, Hank. All the best talk soon.

  7. Wonderful story, wonderful writing!

  8. I am late to find this but loved reading it. Genealogy is fascinating. My father-in-law was a dedicated genealogists and traced my family. We made a trip to Germany several years ago to meet our German Rickoll family.

  9. Thanks Hank for giving me the link to this wonderfully written article. That could be you & I, as our friendship has grown over the years. Of course you are a better writer than I. Need to get together and share some memories and thoughts. Thinking about ya’ll. nellie

  10. Great story! Website looks very nice too, clean and easily navigated.

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