Title: Interview with Joe Lesser (November 5, 1981)
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00006649/00001
 Material Information
Title: Interview with Joe Lesser (November 5, 1981)
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Publication Date: November 5, 1981
Spatial Coverage: 12099
Palm Beach (Fla.) -- History.
Funding: This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00006649
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
Holding Location: This interview is part of the 'Palm Beach' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: PBC 24

Table of Contents
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
        Page 14
        Page 15
        Page 16
        Page 17
        Page 18
        Page 19
Full Text

This Oral History is copyrighted by the Interviewee
and Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on
behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of

Copyright, 2005, University of Florida.
All rights, reserved.

This oral history may be used for research,
instruction, and private study under the provisions
of Fair Use. Fair Use is a provision of United States
Copyright Law (United States Code, Title 17, section
107) which allows limited use of copyrighted
materials under certain conditions.
Fair use limits the amount of materials that may be

For all other permissions and requests, contacat the
the University of Florida.



INTERVIEWER: Grace Scheinman

DATE: November 5, 1981

PLACE: West Palm Beach, Florida

1' i-)

S: To start with, Mr. Lesser, I'd like to thank you very much fur
agreeing to be interviewed. As a practicing lawyer here for
over 50 years, I know that you'll have much to contribute.

Let's start way back. What are your earliest memories of your
early years?

L: Of my early years? When I was born or do you mean since I came
to Florida?

S: When you were born, and as a child, and as a young man. Start
at the beginning.

L: I was born in Rome, Georgia, not too far from Atlanta, Georgia.
I was raised there, I went to school there. In fact, I
graduated from the University of Georgia. I spent about 26 years
of my life, maybe 27 years of my life, in Georgia. Then I
moved to Florida and I spent the rest of my life here in Florida.

S: Let's go back to Georgia. Tell me about your home life?

L: In Rome, Georgia?

S: Yes.

L: Well, as I recall now, we only had a few Jewish people in Rome,
Georgia at the time, maybe 16 or 20 Jewish families.

S: About how large was the City of Rome?

L: It was about 20,000 population, 25,000 possibly, but only about
16 or 18 Jewish families in Rome itself.

We didn't have a shul or temple but we used the Masonic Temple,
with their consent, of course. We paid rent, and so forth. We
had no rabbi but we had a lot of laymen who knew how to be a
rabbi. In fact, there's a family there called the Esserman
family and the old gentleman himself was a shochet and he under-
took to teach the kids. I went to cheder with Rabbi -- we
called him Rabbi Esserman. He had five boys and they all grew
up there in Rome, and got to be good citizens of Rome. Other
than that, we had the finest Jewish community, I don't believe
it could be improved on. Just a handful of people, but they
were close together, close knit. If anybody had to have a
yahrzeit, if anybody had to have a minyan you didn't have to do
a thing except call up so and so or go down the street and he'd
have a minyan. The Masonic Temple was on Broad Street, which
is the main street, and the street itself was full of Jewish

S: What was the relationship of the Jewish families to the rest of
the population? Was it a good feeling?

L: With the goyim?

S: Yes.


L: Very good. Now that I think back, I never heard any serious
conflict or misunderstanding or aggravation of anything, in all the
time that I was there. I played on the football team, played on the
baseball team. We were invited to all the dances. My wife was
with me all the time. In fact, she's a Rome, Georgia girl too.
She even played in the orchestra, and she was seen in the acting
part of the stage when they put on a play. It was a lovely
community, both ways, from the standpoint of Jewish people (there
was just a handful of us) and the goyim. They were nice, nice;
refined, sensible people.

S: Were you educated there? You went to college there? Got your
law degree?

L: I went to high school in Rome and to college in Athens, Georgia,
which is out near Atlanta. I graduated from the University of
Georgia in 1921. After graduation I went back to Rome and
opened up my office to practice law. It was a hard grind, and it
always has been, and I didn't stay there very long. I moved to
Atlanta, Georgia, because it's a bigger City and has a-much
larger Jewish population.

S: About when was that?

L: That was in 1922 and the early part of 1923.

S: And you graduated in 1921?

L: Yes, in 1921.

S: Then in Atlanta, what did you do?

L: Atlanta now, that's the New York of the South. They have a big
Jewish population there. Now it's much bigger than it was, but
a very big Jewish population when I was there. They had Jewish
professional clubs, they had their own private clubs and they got
along fine with the goyim as far as I could tell. We never had any
bother with the Ku Klux Klan. We never bothered with any
terrorist organizations. We never heard of any such thing.
As I look back now, I don't think they had anything like that
at all. We got along fine.

I was associated with two lawyers in Atlanta for a while; fine
fellows. I've been fortunate in my associations in law. I don't
know whether I told you or not how I came to come to Florida. I
happen to have a friend in Atlanta by the name of Maurice
Kaplan. He had been with the Prudential Insurance Company for
many years, and he had written a lot of insurance policies.
Those insurance policies had what you call renewals, and he got
his income out of the renewals. I had been to New York for some
reason (I don't remember what I went there for). I got back
from New York and he met me at the Union Station in Atlanta.


He said, "Joe, let's go to Florida."

And I said, "Maurice, you can go to hell, Buddy, I ain't going
to Florida. I'm going to start back in and start making a
living. 'I want to get married. You can't get married without
money and I can't make any money anywhere else, I'll make it in
Atlanta, maybe."

Well, one word led to another and he persuaded me to go with
him because he said, "It ain't going to cost you a dime. I've
got my car and you'll go with me. I'll buy our food, I'll
arrange for us a place to stay in Miami, and if you don't like
it, I'll put you on the train and send you right back."

Who can turn down a proposition like that? I said, "Maurice,
you've got a deal." So, we came to Florida on that kind of

We started out selling real estate, both of us. I wasn't
admitted to the bar in Florida and he didn't have any license
either to sell real estate. He had no license at all but you
could meet anybody on the street, you see, that boom business
was on.

S: What year would this be, was this the year of the boom?

L: Yes, the latter part of '24 and the early part of 1925. This
was the early part of 1925. That was before I was married.

The boom was a crazy thing, if you heard about it or read about it.
People used to sell a piece of property for $100,000. It
couldn't be worth over $5,000, $10,000 tops. People used to
sell a lot. They didn't know where it was, but it was in the
lake, or it was in the middle of the ocean. Everybody was
crazy. If you were standing on the corner with a map in your
hand or plat of piece of real estate, somebody wanted to buy it.
It was a crazy thing.

Well, Maurice and I started out selling real estate, and I had a
good piece of luck. A boy that I went to school with at the
University of Georgia -- can't remember his name -- he was an
only son of a rich mother from Savannah, Georgia. Anyway, he
wanted to buy some real estate, and although I wasn't equipped to
sell it to him, Maurice was. Maurice Kaplan could sell the
building that he didn't own. He sold it as real estate and as a
result of that we got a commission. It's the only thing I ever
sold. Make some money out of it, got a commission out of it.

Milton Keller -- Milton Keller was his name.

Well, after awhile the people in Atlanta got word of the fact
that Maurice was doing what he was doing (he wasn't supposed to do
that), he's under contract with Prudential, and they sent him a
telegram: "You be back in the office by Monday or else we
cancel your contract". And he wasn't going to let them do that


because his renewals would be cut off. So, he said, "Joe,
I'm sorry, I've got to leave you."

I said, "I'm sorry, too, but I'll see what I can do." By
that time I'd made a little search around here to see what I
wanted to do about law.

S: I'd like you to tell the story about how you got into
your first law firm.

L: I knew I had to get connected somehow in a law office. I
practiced law in Atlanta for three years.

How do you go about it? I took the telephone directory and I
picked out four names, four firms. Each firm had at least
three men in the firm. Blackwell, Donnell and Moore; Wagner,
Wagner and Wardlow; Quincy and Rice is three and one other,
four of them. And having picked out my four names (I didn't
know anybody, of course), I put them in a hat, and then I stuck
my hand in there and pulled out one. It came out Blackwell and
Donnell. Mr. Donnell was a circuit judge in Jacksonville
before he came here, and Blackwell was from Live Oak, Florida.
Both of them were much older than me. I was just a kid and they
were both older than me. Anyhow, I said, how do I get to
this fellow? I got his name and he was in the Citizen's Build-
ing, so I said, I have got to get to him.

I had several cards in my pocket, Joe H. Lesser, Attorney at
Law, 4th National Bank Building, Atlanta, Georgia.

I thought, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So, I went
up to the office and I walked up to the young lady and she
knew I was a lawyer. She looked at the card; she thought I was
and out-of-town attorney trying to get somebody associated with
me in handling a piece of real estate.

S: She thoughtyou had an appointment?

L: Yes. She said, "Just a minute. Who do you want to see?"

I said, "I want to see Judge Donnell." Now, why I said, "Judge
Donnell" instead of "Judge Blackwell" I don't know. I just
said "Judge Donnell," and it turned out that was the luckiest thing
I ever said in my life because Judge Donnell is a prince. Both
were goyim, you understand, but he was a prince.

He said, "Have a seat, Mr. Lesser. What can I do for you?"

I said, "Judge, let me start off by telling you, I may have
gotten in here under false pretenses. I am a lawyer, that
part isn't a lie, but I have no legal business. I want a job."


S: That probably struck him very well?

L: He laughed like a son of a gun. He said, "What can you do?"

I said, "Anything."

He said, "That's a big order."

I said,"Yes, sir, I know it. I need a big order."

He said, "I'll talk with Mr. Blackwell. You be back Thursday
morning and I'll tell you." This was Monday or Tuesday.

I went back there Thursday morning and he said, "Well, all
right. You can examine an abstract, right?"

I said, "That's what I did in Atlanta for three years." I
knew how to examine an abstract.

He said, "If you can examine an abstract, we'll use you."

He never told me how much he was going to pay me. I never
asked him how much he was going to pay. I never dd know
until the end of the first week how much I was supposed to get.
I got $50 a week. That was a hell of a lot of money'

In the meantime, I got married. I got on a train, an

S: Tell us about that. That's very interesting, yes.

L: The Florida East Coast Railroad came through here then and they
put on an excursion.

S: What was the fare then?

L: The fare was $18 round trip. That's $9 oreway. I could just
about afford that so I said I'm going to go up to Rome,
Georgia. I didn't know what I was going up for, except to see
Rae, my wife. We went to grammar school together, preliminary
school together, high school together and before I went to
Florida I told her if I could get a little money we were going
to get married.

"Sure we'll get married, but when you get money," she said.

Meantime, she's the one who had a good job in Rome.

S: What did she do then?

L: She was an accountant and secretary for both the Millner Motor
Company and the Lavore Motor Company. She was very familiar with
the way you sell an automobile, and you have to draw the
finance papers, and insurance forms, and go to the bank, and


whatever you have to do. She knew how to do all that. Anyway,
she came to West Palm Beach -- wait a minute, I'm way ahead
of my story.

I decided I would go to Rome and we would get married, but I
had no assurance of that, I wasn't sure what she'd say. I got
there, I saw my father, and then I saw her. I stayed there two
days. I said, "If you want, let's get married."

And she says, "On what?"

I said, "Now, don't be too practical." She's a very practical

I said, "Don't worry about that, we'll do all right."

So, the long and the short of the story is, she said, "We have
to go to Atlanta."

In the Jewish religion, nine days (nine teyg, is something in
that Jewish religion that in the nine days you can't get
married between certain holidays.) So, her father said, "No,
you can't get married in here."

My father said the same thing.

They wouldn't have objected to our getting married, but not in
the nine days. So, I said, "I can't stay. I've got to get
back. I want to go back down to Blackwell and Donnell."

So, we got in her car and called up Atlanta first.

S: She had a Ford, I gather.

L: She had a Ford, already paid for. We called up Rabbi David
Marx. He was a most outstanding Reform Rabbi in Georgia, in
fact, almost in the south. It was Friday and I asked him on
the phone, "Rabbi, my sweetheart and I want to get married.
We will be there in a little while if you can do it."

He says, "Wait a minute. It's shabbas."

"It's only 60 miles from here to there. We'll be there in just
a little while. We certainly would appreciate it, Rabbi."

Incidentally, I had gone to school at the University of
Georgia with his son -- Rabbi Marx's son. That helped a whole

I said, "Ask your son, David, Junior. Ask David."

The long and short of the story: he said, "All right. If
you'll be here at 11:00, I'll do it."


Sure enough, 11:00 we were there, and he called in his secre-
tary and whoever else he called in and he went through the
rigamarole. I knew I had to pay him but I didn't have too
much money. I gave him $25 anyhow, even though he's a Reform
Rabbi. They always get paid for a wedding ceremony. I gave
him that, and I kissed my bride and we got in the car and
started for Florida.

S: That was when?

L: That was in 1925, the early part.

S: And, you were on your way to West Palm?

L: West Palm Beach, yes.

I'm sorry, not '25, we got marriedin July, '26.

We were then on our way to West Palm Beach, and we kept going in
that automobile until we got to Savannah, Georgia before I
realized she hadn't eaten anything all day, and neither had I.
So, we stopped in Savannah and had something to eat. Then we
checked into an old hotel that'S still standing there since
the Civil War. I can't remember the name of it right now, but
the bathroom was as big as this room right here, a typical
Georgia hotel. And the next morning we came down to Florida.
Then the fun started.

S: Where in Florida did you come?

L: West Palm Beach. It's only 300 miles from Savannah.

S: The boom was still on?

L: The boom had busted. They were not buying any more, but
they were selling and closing deals and giving back property
and all that kind of business. The lawyers were busy but
the people hadn't left here.

Everybody from Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi and
Tennessee, everybody from all those places was in Florida,
right here in West Palm Beach. They had gone to Miami but
they got fed up with Miami and moved up this way, so I had no
place to stay. I finally found a one-room proposition with
a Mrs. Cavalier, a Jewish lady.

S: In a home?

L: In her home. She had a vacant room, and that's where we
stayed. And then the next thing I know my wife went out and
got a job in the Ford place doing what she did up in Georgia.
She got $35 a week and I got $50 a week.


Now, the first week, when it was over, and we got our money,
we had $85. We could have gone to New York, we could have had
a hell of a good time. We just got married, but she wouldn't
do it.

She said, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'm going to put my
$35 in the bank and we'll live on yours. If you make anything
extra and we need it, we'll have it, but this goes in the bank."

You know, she's still got the first $35.

S: Did you have any Jewish affiliation at that time and were there
many other Jews that you met when you first established

L: Yes. I was the only Jewish lawyer in West Palm Beach for two
or three years -- several years. I was president of Temple
Beth El.

S: At that time?

L: I joined --

S: At that time?

L: No, no.

S: What congregations were here?

L: Beth El was here.

S: Where did they meet?

L: They met a little place on 7th Street in a little frame house.
They didn't have too many members the first year and Beth
Israel was also in existence. That's the Reform Temple. But
they had a different place on another street.

S: And that was in 1926?

L: 1926, yes, that's right.

Now, both of those temples began to get members as the people
decided to stay. A lot of people departed, went back where
they came from. Nobody made any money except a very few people
as a result of that boom, and those that didn't make any money,
and lost money, wanted to get back home.

S: Tell us about your Jewish affiliations.

L: You see, a lawyer can't advertise, can't put out a sign and
say, "I'm a lawyer, I want your business." You've got to be
known to the people.


So, the first time somebody had a yahrzeit, I went to the
minyan and I made a speech. The next thing I knew, somebody
had a Bar Mitzvah or a Bas Mitzvah or a Bris, and I went there
and made a speech. First thing you know I got a reputation
as being a speaker. They asked me to be chairman of this,
chairman of that, and after about three years after I had
been here then I got to be president of Temple Beth El. The
congregation was small.

S: Were they still meeting in a small place?

L: No, then we began to grow and we had some fellows there who
were live wires. Now, the people who I met here in West Palm
Beach were the same type of Jews that I had in Rome; fine, out-
standing people who had no animosity against anybody and who were
very cooperative with each other. They got together ad they
raised money, and they built a little temple for themselves
first. Then they built another one, they built two, and then
finally they wound up with a magnificent structure on Flagler
Drive, in West Palm Beach.

S: That's in the past how many years?

L: I'd say that's within the last five or six years.

S: Let's go back again, when you first moved here, established
your office, became well-known as a speaker, about how many
Jewish families were here at that time and what were they like
and did you socialize?

L: Yes, ma'am. That was the most pleasant part of my existence here
in West Palm Beach. Clematis Street was full of Jewish
merchants: Abe Cohen, Sam Shearer, Abe Goldsmith, Sam Goldberg,
I could name a few more, but they were Jewish people in business
on Clematis Street.

I could walk down Clematis Street and say, "Hey Joe, Hey Sam,"
all the way through. "Come on, let's get a coca cola." We'd
go get a coca cola. We'd go get a drink.

Nowadays, if you want a drink you've got to get bourbon or
scotch and soda, but not in those days.

S: And then did you see them socially?

L: Then they used to have affairs. Pauline Shearer, Sam Shearer's wife,
was a doll. She was really a doll. My wife was in love with
her. They were as close as sisters. We were over there for
dinner and they were at my house for dinner. In fact, I would
say in that time with so few Jews that we had, everybody was
that way, even the so-called rich, and the so-called not-so-

S: Were they all friendly and warm?


L: All friendly and warm. They all would come together. We
didn't have any what they call Deutisheh Jews. We didn't have
any of them.

S: There were none there?

L: They were here, unaffiliated.

S: Oh, unaffiliated.

L: A lot of them even joined Beth Israel. But later on they got
two good Rabbis at Temple Israel. One was Rabbi Singer, and
another one whose name I forget. They were so-called Deutisheh
Jews, right Jews, in the temple. And they built a good building
out there.

S: Did you at that time observe Jewish rules and so forth? Did
you keep a kosher home? I believe I heard your wife say some-
thing about there being no kosher butcher around.

L: I heard her say that. There was a kosher butcher. Sam Coldberg
was a Jewish butcher inthe sense that he had a farm out there and he
had cattle on it. If a heifer came along, or a young calf, he
had it slaughtered and put the meat on his table and said, "It's
kosher food," but it wasn't kosher.

So, orthodox Jews like Mike Kalmutz and Rose Kalmutz (who are
still here), came to my house.

S: Did they come as early as you?

L: No, they came after me, but not too long after me. I'd been
here maybe four or five years, six years. I lived on Greenwood
Drive and here comes Mr. Kalmutz. "Can I ask you a question?
Do you know where there's a Jewish butcher or a Jewish meat
market or a Jewish something?"

I said, "You must be Jewish, so am I." I've known him ever
since, he's a fine fellow.

S: Your Jewish affiliation went on with the temple itself?

L: That's right.

S: Your organizations and so forth. And your friendship with the
other Jewish families. Did you say, about 25 Jewish
families were here at that time?

L: When I first came here, yes, that's about all. Then it grew
and grew and grew. Now they've got a least 300 members in
Beth El, and maybe 400 members in Beth Israel. But they have
more unaffiliated Jews here than those two together. They're
just unaffiliated, that's all.


S: Did you find at that time that there was any restrictions
against minorities, Jews and blacks?

L: In the beginning, yes.

S: In what way did you feel it?

L: Well, when I heard about the hotel in Palm Beach known as the
Breakers Hotel, I said, "That's a beautiful place." We'd
ride by there, maybe I could play golf there (I was playing
golf in those days). And I went over there to see if I could
play golf. Sorry, I couldn't play golf, they wouldn't let me.
I was a Jew. My name didn't say I was Jewish but they found out,
or I told them I was Jewish, so I couldn't play golf there.

Other than that there were some signs of exclusiveness of
apartment houses for rent: restricted. There were signs like
that. And they were there for several years.

S: How long did that last?

L: That lasted for several years until the makeup of the people
and the government and everything else changed. New, different
type of poeple. The old folks died out,young folks came in and
they decided this restriction business don't go because you're
curtailing business. You're interfering with the free operation
of business, free trade and so forth. So, gradually that
restricted business passed away. There's still a few places
even today, where it's restricted.

The Jewish people here finally bought a club, I say here, in
Palm Beach. There were no Jews in Palm Beach at all when I came

S: I meant to ask that?

L: They were tourists, they were visitors and they didn't have
their own property. They lived in the hotels and they lived in
rented homes. Used to pay $7,000, $8,000 a season for a home
but they didn't own their property until Dave Katz and Irving
Kapner went out and bought some land and started development and
built houses and they sold them like this, everyone of them.
Dave Katz is a rich man today.

Joe and Irving Moss were two of the fellows who were here when
I came and they were fine outstanding men. They had a little
store, in fact, one was a peddlar and he was a fine fellow.
Irving Moss came down here and he and a friend of his from the
north opened up a meat market in Palm Beach and made a fortune
on what they call Main Street then. It's called Poinciana
Way now.

Dave Tisnower and Irving Kapner made a fortune with that one store
because they had no competition.


S: Were there any Jews in public life at that time?

L: None. The only Jew that ever offered himself for public life
was Joe Mandell but that was just before I came here and he
was the Mayor of the City of West Palm Beach. No other Jew
offered himself for public office because there was still that
undercurrent -- always an undercurrent just like there is when
they talk about, "So-and-so is a Catholic." You know, "You're
not going to vote for him because he's a Catholic." They said
the same thing about the Jews.

I was in the Bar Association and still am. I've been a member
of the Bar here for, oh, 50 years. I've served as secretary,
and I've been the recognized Rabbi of the Bar Association in that
I was always called on to give the invocation, but never offered for
public office.

Didn't want it. Didn't need it.

S: In the course of the years, what was the relationship between
the Jewish and non-Jewish population of West Palm Beach? I'm
not talking about today, but I mean in the earlier years.

L: Well, it took time for the thing to thaw out. And it took time
for those who came from Georgia and Alabama who thought that a Jew
had horns on his head to weed out.

But after awhile they did weed out. They all went away, so there
wasn't much discrimination and there wasn't any persecution then,
of any kind that I could see.

But, the Jew had to be on his toes. He had to behave himself.
He had to do what's right. He couldn't steal or cheat or
anything like that. Everybody had to be clean.

S: How did you spend your evenings after work? What was the
typical day?

L: The first eight years after we were married, my wife worked
right with me. She left the Ford place and went to work for
Blackwell and Donnell. She worked eight years. At the end of
eight years she got pregnant. So she came in one day and said
ie had to quit. She quit after eight years and the next year,
the baby was born.

After the baby was born, then we began to live. We got a little
son, the likes of which you'll never see any better. He's a
fine boy! After the baby was born, we socialized. They had
affairs at Temple Beth El (that's where we belonged at that time).
Bar Mitzvahs, and Brises, parties, we had all that. We always
took trips.

S: At this time were you well established?


L: Oh, yes. In fact, I was beginning to make more money than
Blackwell and Donnell. In 1930, I think (I'm pretty sure that's
it), Judge Donnell came to me one day and he says, "Joe, you're
busy. You're doing all right. We can't pay you any more

"Well," I said, "Judge, I don't care about salary, but I want to
stay here with you if I can."

He said, "I'll tell you what. If you want to stay with us, we'd
be happy, but you pay a third, Blackwell pay a third, I pay a
third of the overhead; telephone, stocks and so forth."

I said, "You're on." So, I started on that basis. It never
changed. It stayed right there. I made more money than they did.

S: Now, did your son go to Sunday School?

L: My son went to Sunday School at Beth El and he was a good boy.

S: Did he go to Hebrew School?

L: He went to Hebrew School.

S: Was he Bar Mitzvahed?

L: Yes. Oh, he had a Bar Mitzvah. When he was Bar Mitzvah, Leon
and Eddie were here with a show in Palm Beach, so we made a
deal. We got the club that night for the Bar Mitzvah and Leon
and Eddie were the entertainment.

That was the biggest thing West Palm Beach had seen in a long
time for a Bar Mitzvah.

S: Incidentally, were you Bar Mitzvahed as a boy?

L: Yes, ma'am, in Rome.

S: And your son, did he go to school here or did he go away?

L: No, he went to school here at Palm Beach High School. Then he
went to the University of Florida in Gainesville, and he was
there four years. He was Phi Beta Kappa. He had a good

In his third year, he and I talked it over. "What are you going
to do, son?" He was a debater. He made the debating team and
he used to fly to Houston, Texas to debate. Flew down to Miami
to debate. Said he wanted to be a lawyer.

I sais, "That suits me fine, son, because when you get out and get
your degree, I'll have an office ready for you. You'll go right
to work. You won't have to struggle like I did." I had to
struggle like hell to start with.


He says, "Dad, you got a deal."

He graduated in 1960 from the University of Florida, after
three more years. He was there seven years because of fur
years of pre-law, three years law; altogether, seven years.

Then in 1960 he came here and I had an office right there,
Blackwell, Donnell and myself.

John Moore used to have that office, but he got to be a judge
of the criminal court so the office was vacant. There he was,
shep was right there.

S: Is that your son's name? Shep?

L: Yes, Shepard Lesser was his name because my wife's maiden name
was Shepard. We tried to perpetuate those names, Shepard Lesser.

He went right to work. I took him to the courthouse, intro-
duced him to the judges, introduced him to the clerks and
everybody around there, "This is my son."

They called him Mr. Lesser. They were very courteous.

Finally we sat down and I said, "Shep, how am I going to pay

"Whatever you say, dad." Never said anything. "Whatever you
say, dad." All those years.

Anyway, after the first year I paid him $100 a week. He got
married in Gainesville. It didn't last. It lasted long enough
for them to come to West Palm Beach and set up an apartment, but
it didn't last, they broke up. He gave his wife whatever they
had in the house and then he was single again. I was paying him
a salary.

I said, "I'll tell you what, son. We'll start something new
here. Whatever we make I'll give you twenty percent and I'll
keep eighty percent."

"Whatever you say, dad."

At the end of the first year, I said, "I'll tell you what,son.
Whatever we make, I'll keep seventy percent and you get thirty
percent." The fourth year he got forty percent. The fifth year
he got fifty percent. Now he gets it all.

S: Was your relationship with your own father good?

L: Oh, Lord, yes. He was a good father. He was a Yiddisheh father.
He never denied me anything, although he had four children by my
mother and four children by my stepmother. He had eight children.


S: Did your mother die when you were young?

L: My mother died when I was ten. At that time there were four
aunts living in Rome, Georgia and four little children, I was
the youngest and one said, "I'll take Sadie," "I'll take
Bessie," "I'll take so-and-so," and "I'll take so-and-so."

Dad said, "Nobody's going to take. We'll keep the family

The next thing you know, somebody introduced him to a little
lady, Ida Nelson, who had relatives in Rome and they got

I was skeptical at first because nobody could take the place of
my mother but I didn't remember my, mother. I was just a kid.
She was a wonderful stepmother. And she raised us four little
children, and then she raised four more.

S: Now, what I'm trying to think up here now is that your own
background was a Jewish background, always?

L: Yes, ma'am.

S: And when you married, you and your wife had a Jewish home, were
you interested in Jewish things not necessarily ritualistic?

L: We observed kashruth to start with.

S: You did or didn't?

L: We did. But when we found out that the Goldberg's market wasn't
kosher, then there was no point to it, so we started buying from
the supermarket.

S: You didn't light candles or say kiddish?

L: Not Friday nights. We used to go to services. We always went to
Friday services as long as I was in Beth El.

Now, here's something that happened that maybe shouldn't have
happened. Came Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In the meantime,
Shep had married again and his wife, a fine girl, wanted to join
the Reform Temple. She felt like that's the best place for
children. I don't know why she felt that. They were going to
have children. She wanted four, five children. So, they
joined the temple of Beth Israel. When Rosh Hashana came and
they had us over for Rosh Hashana dinner, when it was over,
Shep says, "Well, so long dad. Hate to see you go. I'm going
to Beth El, that's where I belong," and he and Staci are going
to go to Beth Israel.

I didn't like that, but what could I do about it. Mama didn't
like it either. We can't tell him where to go and he wasn't
going to tell me where to go. It lasted for a few months and


then out of the blue (I knew everybody in the Temple Beth
Israel, I'm still a member of Beth Israel Men's Club, I go
to their meetings once a month), I met somebody and I said,
"I'm going to join the Temple. How much are the dues?" and
they told me what the dues were. I joined Beth Israel.

When I joined Beth Israel, I didn't see any need to go to
both of them. I started going to Beth Israel because I was
with my son. We'd go together and that's what I liked about it.

S: You like the family together on the High Holidays?

L: Yes. And it's been that way ever since. So, I joined Beth
Israel and they joined Beth Israel. After I'm a member of
Beth Israel and I had been for ahile, Staci decided that (she
had two children, a girl and a boy), she wanted the boy to go
to a cheder to go to Hebrew School and the congregation Beth El
had an established Hebrew School with teachers and curriculum
and all that business. Cost them $1,200, $1,300 a year to go
there. She wanted Gary, that's her son, to go there, so lo and
behold, he went to Beth El, back to them. That's where they
are. They're still at Beth El and I'm still at Beth Israel.

S: Do they belong to Beth El?

L: Oh, yes.

S: Oh, they belong to the Temple too?

L: Oh, yes.

S: I thought you meant the child just went to Hebrew School.

L: He went to Hebrew School every day, no public school.

S: This is your biography, not your son's, but just by way of
information, are they active in the temple?

L: In Beth El?

S: Yes.

L: Yes, ma'am, they are. She's active and she writes a column for
the Jewish Floridian. That has nothing to do with the temple,
but she gets her information through it. She's got a good Jewish
background herself.

S: What do you think about the Jewish community in West Palm
Beach now and how do you compare the relationship between the
Jewish community and the non-Jewish community? Do you feel it's
the same now here as it was years ago? Do you find there's
more friction or less?


L: I don't find there's any friction. I know it must exist
because the goyim don't invite the Jews to their homes, and
the Jews don't invite the goyim to their homes, with few

Now, I've tried to invite Judge White, Judge Chillingsworth,
Judge McIntosh. I invited all those goyish judges when I had
Shep's Bar Mitzvah. They were all there.

At my 75th birthday my son and his wife gave me a 75th
birthday party, and invited all the goyim they thought I knew.
We must have had about 500, 600 people there. Goyim, no

S: They accepted it?

L: They accepted it with anticipation. They signed my book, I got
a book. Today, the relationship between the Jew and Christian
is as good as it was when we came here because when we came
here we stayed in a little corner. But now we get around and we
play golf. Shep joined the YMCA, he went there because he
plays handball. We mix and mingle. But I think the relation-
ship is good.

Some of the best friends I ever had were goyim. Charlie Warwick,
Phil O'Connell, Joe Farish, all those fellows are just princes
as far as I'm concerned.

S: Can you think of any other incidents that you'd like to include
in this?

L: There's so many things that happen in 56 years, it's hard to
think of them all. We've been married 56 years.

S: And you've lived down here that many years?

L: Lived here that many years. There was a Jewish couple here. I
can't think of their names, but this couple had the little
house here on Olive Street and they were getting old. He was
90, she was a little less, and they moved to a place in Palm

It was converted into a condominium. It was a Palm Beach Hotel,
that's the name of it, on Sunrise. That's where they moved to,
they live there. But they still get around. I see them every
once in awhile. Not too often, because they don't go to
services or anything like that. Too old. You get too old you
can't move around much.

S: Unlike years ago, there's been a big influx of Jewsin the Palm
Beach proper now.

L: And how. You see the Jews have got acumen, they've got
intelligence. They see a bargain and they buy it and they make


money on it. That's one reason the goyim sort of dislike them
because their touch is like the Midas touch. They don't like
that but that's the way they are.

But, there was one thing I hadn't mentioned, I was going to
mention if you'd asked me, what is one of the most memorable
things that happened to me since I lived in Flordia. One of
the most memorable is what it was.

We were married. Hadn't been married too long. We were married
in 1932 -- we used to go back and forth to Rome by train as
long as they had the Florida East Coast. Her parents were
there, my parents were there, or at least my father was there.
Her sister, Lena, who since passed away, came to visit us, and
we were having a nice time. We decided we would take Lena and
drive back to Rome instead of putting her on the train. Before
we did that I decided to call up Rome and found out that my
father had been hit by an automobile in Rome, Georgia and they
didn't think it was too serious. He was crossing from here to
there to get a minyam. He was going to get Jake Mendelson and
his Yana to come to shul to make up a minyam. In the middle of
the street is concrete and an automobile stopped. He stopped, and
they both started at the same time, so the car and he collided.
He fell backwards and hit his head on the concrete.

When they told me about it they said they didn't think it was
serious, but if you're coming, come ahead and you'll see him.

I got worried about that. I said, "Look, darling. I don't know
about this business with the head, a blow on the head. Let's
get going and let's go and I'll push."

We got in the car with Lena, her sister, and we drove up to
a place called Valdosta, Georgia, right outside of Jacksonville,
not too far from Rome. We were going to spend the night.

"I can't drive all night and all day but I want to telephone
and see if dad's all right." Went to the telephone and my
stepmother got on the phone.

She says, "Joe, if you could possibly get here, come on. It's
too close. He ain't got much time."

Well, how else could I get there? I didn't know about a plane.
In those days you couldn't get a plane like you could today.
I said, "Mama, we just pulled in. We're leaving now. Tell pop
to hang on, we'll be there."

So, we got in the car, Rae and her sister, Lena, and me, and I
started out in Valdosta. I knew the road well, didn't have any
turnpikes, didn't have any 1-95's. We had a road, Dixie. I
stepped on that gas and I pushed, and I pushed, and I was dead


tired. You had to go through Atlanta to get to Rome. They
didn't have what they have today, a road that goes around
Atlanta. You had to go through Atlanta.

I finally got through the traffic, got on the highway that
leads to Rome and we were coming over here, where after I get
around this bend I could see our house. I got around the bend
and I saw 30 or 40 automobiles in front of the house. Didn't
have to tell me anything. I knew what happened because they
were there. I never got to see him. I tried my damnest to
get there. I never forgot that, but I tried.

They said, "Why didn't you leave by train the day before?"

Who knows? There's always second thoughts, you know, second
guess. But that was the most memorable thing that sticks in my
craw. It happened in 1932.

S: And you remember it so well and as you tell it you feel it. I
can see that.

L: Oh, yes. He was a short stocky fellow, a little bitty fellow.

S: Thank you very, very much for giving me your time and all of
your wonderful stories.

University of Florida Home Page
© 2004 - 2010 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.
All rights reserved.

Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement
Last updated October 10, 2010 - - mvs