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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
JEWISH FEDERATION OF PALM BEACH COUNTY
INTERVIEWEE: Zell Altman
INTERVIEWER: Sylvia Lewis
DATE: February 28, 1982
PLACE: 219 N. Dixie Hwy., Lake Worth
This is Sylvia Lewis and I am in the office of Zell Altman at 219 N. Dixie
Hwy., Lake Worth. The date is February 28, 1982.
L: Zell, I want to thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the Oral History
Project of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
To start our interview, would you please tell me where and when you were born
and something about your early childhood?
A: First of all, Sylvia, I would like to compliment you on this very worthwhile
effort because I think that the history of the Jews who have lived in this
area and our contribution to the community is of great importance and cer-
tainly of much interest to anyone who is concerned with the growth of an area.
So, in answer to your question, as to when and where was I born, and so forth.
First of all, my mother and father, Carl F. Altman and Bertha M. Altman, were
both born in Massachusetts, my father, Carl, in Clinton, Massachusetts, and
my mother, Bertha M. Lander, in Framingham, Massachusetts. I was born in
I have three sisters, so, we are a family of six. We lived in Massachusetts
until 1938. Just to touch very lightly on our life there, I recall going to
Hebrew School for about three years, an interesting experience for me, and
also for the Rabbi.
As far as our religious life was concerned, I wouldn't call it the most ortho-
dox. I know that we observed all of the holidays. We knew that we were Jews
and were proud of it. I can recall my mother and father always telling us to
be proud of this fact. In all probability this was worth just as much, as
far as the growth and development of Jewish children is concerned, as going
to Shul every Friday night.
My father was in the milk business in Massachusetts. and since this was in
the '30s, times were very difficult. Without going into detail about his
business life, (I don't recall the social activities of my mother and father)
I know that dad was wiped out financially.
My oldest sister, Betty, who is one year younger than I, suffered from bronchial
asthma so it was decided that we would move to Florida. This we did right after
the hurricane hit Massachusetts in 1938. The hurricane didn't have anything to
do with dad being wiped out, but they both happened at the same time. My
father had enough money to buy a 1934 Ford pick-up delivery sedan. It was a
vehicle that looked like an automobile, except that the two side windows and
the rear side window were absent. In their place was metal, so it was like a
small, enclosed delivery truck. I can remember that there were only two seats
in the vehicle and my father got wooden boxes that he put behind the two seats
for the four of us children to sit on. Behind us, jamming us up against the
back of the front seat,were all of my family's earthly possessions. In that
car and with a one hundred dollar bill in my father's pocket, we set off for
We came to Miami because my mother's sister, Gert, and her husband, Emil, had
lived there for a year or two and they had a large house and we had to have a
place to go.
We stayed in Miami for a year, or maybe a little less. At that time, dad
started into business with automobile batteries, radiators, tires, and so
forth, taking them out into the Glades. Obviously, in an attempt to earn
money to support his family, probably in that period of a year, dad decided
that, with the trip that he would take out into the Glades, which would last
about three days at a time, Lake Worth was more centrally located than being
in Miami and that's really why we moved to Lake Worth.
L: When you mention the Glades, you're talking about the Everglades at that point,
A: The Everglades. Right. We would drive up to West Palm and then out to Pahokee,
Belle Glade, Clewiston, then go over the west coast and then back. So, this
was more centrally located. During that period of time and this was obviously
in 1938, 1939 and even in 1940, there wasn't any money in Florida. He could go
through two or three towns and, if he was able to put together $10 in one
dollar bills and change, it was quite an accomplishment.
L: Sorry to interrupt, but how old were the children, you and your sisters, at
A: In 1939, I was 14 years old, incidentally I was born in June, 1925, my sister,
Betty, was just about a year or so younger than I. Then my next sister,
Annette, was a year younger, and my sister, Jacqueline, was two years younger,
so there you have four young children in 1939.
Anyway, we went through some very difficult times in the late 30's and early
40's, my father still being on the road, being gone from home two or three
days at a time. It was very difficult. I can recall my father leaving on a
Monday morning, when we would have just enough gas in the truck to get him
out to Pahokee and leave possibly 504 with my mother to buy food for herself
and the four of us. Because there wasn't much money there was a lot of trading.
Stories about my father's activities in the Glades are legend. You could go
on and on for hours, some of them humorous and some of them so sad they could
make you cry. But I know I recall his coming home with a cow in the truck and
we would have to get milk out of the cow. I can recall another time when he
came home and the truck was loaded with oranges and my mother went door to door
selling the oranges when dad would be out on the road again.
I can remember his coming home with a couple of rattlesnakes in the car that he
traded a water pump for, or something like that. I know that when he would be
out in the Glades, (sometimes during the summer I would be out there with him),
there certainly wasn't enough money to rent a room. We had a cot and he would
sleep on the cot in the truck and there was a shelf up on the top and I would
sleep on the shelf. That's how we managed.
Well, without going into too much detail, dad knew that that type of life
was not the best as far as family living was concerned, so we rented a
building here in Lake Worth and that was the start. In that building he had
his water pumps, batteries, and so forth. This led to an interesting thing
because the people that he did business with were from the Glades. And, if
he was going to do business with them he would have to do it on Sunday. This
meant staying open, and, remember, he's got a store here on Lake Avenue which,
incidentally, is the store building immediately south of my office building
right now. So, dad would stay open on Sunday to accommodate his customers
from the Glades and it didn't take too long before the Reverend Culmar, who
was the minister here in Lake Worth, took it upon himself to visit dad and
strongly suggest that he not be open for business on Sunday, the Lord's day.
I don't know the whole conversation, but my father continued to stay open,
naturally, and as the years went by and dad became more involved and more
important in the community, I know that he and Reverend Culmar laughed to-
gether about that incident as they look back upon it.
Naturally, we all went to high school here, Lake Worth High. It may be of
some concern, if you're wondering about the degree of anti-Semitism that
L: Yes, we would like to know, Zell. Now, you went to Lake Worth High School.
At the time that you and your family came here, I would imagine there were
very few Jewish families. Do you remember any other Jewish students at the
school and just what kind of experiences you had? You were 14 years of age?
A: I was 14 in 1939 and was beginning the ninth grade. I went through four years
of high school here.
There was the Rosenbloom family who had a son who was three or four years
older than I and I think he was just getting out of high school when I went in.
So, that meant that there were the four of us, my three sisters and I in high
Anti-Semitism existed and I recall wondering each day as I would go to school,
who was going to be throwing the remarks. The usual "Jew ball, Jew boy", etc.,
that most of us are familiar with. I would imagine that this condition existed,
on the average at least, two or three times a-week for the whole period.
L: Were your sisters subjected to this also?
A: I think that they didn't get it quite as much as I did, because they're girls.
That's the big difference. Boys usually get it more. But, in any event, we
were made to feel different, and, as a result of this, we were not involved in
the school clubs as the good, white members of the community were, and so forth.
We didn't feel left out, but at the same time, we were affected by it, no ques-
tion about it.
In later years, I've always felt that it helps to build character, so, what can
you say about it?
L: How did you react to this type of anti-Semitism?
A: I really don't remember. I lived with it. I don't recall how I tried to
combat it. I just can't remember.
L: Were you an excellent student?
A: Probably not.
L: Sometimes that's a way of combatting it.
A: That's probably the typical Jewish way of combatting it, but, I feel that I
was just an average student.
L: What type of religious background, education, were you having at this time?
A: None, other than we certainly observed the holidays. I can recall the family
going to Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach. I know that we didn't go to
Hebrew school, or anything like that, and I'm sure that my sisters didn't
L: In other words, Zell, there was no organized Jewish community in Lake Worth,
at that time? There was no synagogue or anything at all for the Lake Worth
residents. Were there many Lake Worth Jewish people living here then?
A: To the best of my recollection, we probably had about 20 Jewish families in
that area at that time, and just for the record, there was Harry and Eddie
Arnowitz, Bill Arnold, Louie and Sara Rosenblat, Sid and Marion Davidson,
Sam and Mary Aaronburg, and, incidentally, just to touch on them, Louis
Rosenblat had a second-hand store on Lake Avenue; Bill Arnold and Harry
Horowitz were owners of the Ideal Drug Store; Sid Davidson was a doctor; Sam
and Mary Aaronburg had a shoe store on Lake Avenue, and that shoe store
remained for many, many years, it may be in existence today but I'm not sure
if Sam still owns it; Frank and Molly Cohen; Mr. and Mrs. Margolis and they
had two daughters, Kay and Esther. (Esther was married to Dave Mandel);
Harry Winkler and his wife; and Jack or Jacob Caminer and his wife. Jack
Caminer owned a shirt factory. He started his business on the North Dixie
here in Lake Worth and then he went from shirts to trousers and then into
suits etc. He stayed in business for many, many years. Then there was
Wally Cantor and his wife. Wally was an attorney who turned accountant.
That was his profession in Lake Worth all of the time, being an accountant.
Harry and Leona Prince; and then Mr. and Mrs. Ben Goldenhersch. Ben bought
quite a bit of property here in Lake Worth. When you talk about all of these
people, if we wanted to look in detail, we would see how they are all inter-
woven. Ben Goldenhersch bought a building, or owned a building, that ultimately
Sid Davidson bought, and then another member of the community, etc.
Then Mr. and Mrs. Max Greenberg, and Max, as you know, is the Pioneer Linen in
West Palm, or whatever it's name is; then, Roger Jacknin and his wife and
family. Roger now has one of the very large furniture businesses in the area.
Then there was Harold Shalloway and his family. He had a drycleaning establish-
ment for many, many years. There are others that I can't think of right now.
But, anyway, we had the families but there was no cohesive organization between
them, nothing that tied other than the fact that they were Jews. Obviously,
they felt the need as the years went by to have something more, to become a
more viable part of the community.
So, as we started in Lake Worth in 1939 with my father attempting to get
settled and start a business, he became involved in the community. It's
interesting because even though Jews are noted for their generosity, their
sympathy,their compassion to the whole community, oftentimes the smaller the
community, the more we see that the Jews will stay together within themselves
and help each other. The help that goes out to the non-Jewish community, is
seen more in the larger communities, based on my judgment, I may be in error
but that's my observation here.
Dad was the first one of this group that practiced just that. This came to
be, because, the chief of police, who was a Georgia cracker, six foot three,
truly a redneck, but for reasons unknown to most people, but I can understand
because my father never got anyone angry at him, he became very friendly with
my father and always referred to him as Mr. Carl.
Naturally, the chief of police would receive calls about people coming into
town, their cars breaking down on the Dixie Highway, a mother, father and
five children. They had no money, nothing. He would call Mr. Carl. These
weren't Jews, they were just people. As a result of the call, my father, who
during the 40's and 50's had acquired property, (with part of the properties
as rooming houses), dad would put these people up without any question. He
wouldn't be paid for it. He would see to it that they had clothes. He would
go buy food for them so that they could eat. Then he would find a job for the
husband. This story was repeated countless numbers of times. This way of
life doesn't go unnoticed, especially in hard times.
Anyway, getting back to the Jewish community, dad recognized the need to have
something else, something bigger, so, he and my mother formed the Lake Worth
Hebrew Benevolent Association, I think that happened about 1946. They had
probably 30 or 40 members and I don't mean 30 or 40 families, I'm talking
about heads. Dad was the first president, I think my mother was the second
president, I don't know for sure.
In a year's time,they had 80 members, and as time went on, my folks recognized
the need to have their own house of worship'in Lake Worth. This was highly
important in gaining the respect of the non-Jewish community. Probably in the
late 40's and early 50's, they embarked on their building fund program. I
graduated from law school in 1951, and started practicing here in Lake Worth
in November of that year. It was maybe a year or so later that I recall the
Lake Worth Hebrew Benevolent Association had enough money to buy a piece of
ground. They had $2,500 and they decided where they would like to have the
temple, on North "A" Street here in Lake Worth. A man by the name of Matt
Fergon owned that land, together with countless hundreds of other parcels,
because his business was buying up property being sold at tax foreclosure
sales. I know that he wanted a lot more money for the property because it
was large. It was a whole block as far as frontage was concerned and half a
block as far as depth was concerned. Dad had become acquainted with Matt
Fergon, and to make a long story short, Matt sold him the land for the $2,500
and that was the beginning. That is where Temple Beth Shalom sits today,
certainly a beautiful temple for a community of this size.
The temple started out with a membership of perhaps maybe 40 people. Today
there is a membership in excess of 1,000. My mother and father, needless to
say, are very proud of this accomplishment. They were proud of it because of
what the Jews had done in the community to bring it into being. They were
proud of the acceptance of the rest of the community of this temple. This
was quite a thing when you consider that prejudice existed and not only in
the schools. Lake Worth was a town where in relation to the black com-
munity, I don't like to use this word, but, the phrase was "Nigger, don't
let the sun fall on your back (or set on your back)". In other words, every
black had to be out of town and off the streets by sunset.
So, it was a tremendous accomplishment. I know that this happened in great
part because of my mother and my father and the way they handled themselves
in regard to their relationship to the whole community, not just the Jewish
community. They were accepted as much as anyone could be, notwithstanding
the fact that we know that there was still the private talk about Jews and
so forth and so on.
L: Zell, when I was at the memorial service for your dear father, I met a
minister who shared a story with me that when Carl and the others started
the building fund, Carl said that there was no such thing as Jewish money or
Christian money, it was just money to build this house of worship, and this
minister said to me that whenever I come into that Shul room I feel that I'm
part of it because Carl collected $100 from me. I was just wondering if you
remember how your dad went about this when he started soliciting funds.
A: Well, I don't recall this specific incident, but certainly it falls in line
with the way my father handled himself and the way he was accepted in the
You know, dad was not conscious of the fact that he was a Jew. Not that he
ever denied it, certainly not, but everybody knew of his Jewishness, his
Jewish life, his connections. As a matter of fact, as we were looking through
his scrap book, we see that he had great press, considering those days when
the community wasn't accepting Jews as they are today. Remember that this
whole area was dotted with restricted clientele signs, etc. Notwithstanding
that, dad was accepted, as well as my mother, in the total community. So,
when it came time to construct a temple, and because dad was part of the com-
munity and helped the whole community, Jews and gentiles alike, it certainly
followed that he would ask whomever he knew to contribute. And, as your story
relates, a lot of non-Jews did.
Naturally, dad was president of the temple for a long time. I didn't mention
it but he was president of the Lake Worth Hebrew Benevolent Association. My
mother was president of the Auxiliary. I was probably a vice president or
something like that. My father continued in his role as a leader, and this is
very important, especially with Jews. You've heard the story about Israel and
being president of a land having two million presidents as opposed to two
million people. As we all know, it's the same thing with the temple. My
father, and modestly, I, have been the only two men that could have board meet-
ings where everything would go smoothly; where we wouldn't be confronted with
"I've got a better idea" constantly. This is very important because it was
the formative years for the temple and without this kind of subtle control
and direction, I'm not saying the temple wouldn't have happened but I feel
that it would not have happened as soon as it did.
L: Both you and your father commanded and command a great deal of respect. I had
the privilege of knowing your father, unfortunately, not of your mother. But
Carl exuded a certain aura so that when you listened to him, everything that
he said made so much sense. It was so for the well-being of the temple that
he loved, and I think that people thus respected and didn't question anything
he presented to them.
I noticed in the scrapbook that he was also very active in the Civitan, the
Lake Worth Civitan, the Civic Council.
Zell, after your mother died in 1954, could you tell us something of what your
A: Yes, as we find in life, the roads have many turns and directions. That was a
turning point in dad's life because his wife was no longer with him. Within a
year after mother died, dad had closed up his store here in Lake Worth. I
didn't mention that a year before mother died, they had gone to New Hampshire
and bought a farm intending to spend the summers up there, not knowing at that
time that mother had cancer. Well, actually, dad lost a lot of motivation.
He was wandering. He started to spend a little more time in New Hampshire, but,
at the same time, did not sever his ties with Lake Worth. He continued to
keep his hands in, so to speak. He continued to be the Chairman of Fiesta Del
Sol which was a big event in town. It was very interesting. The people all
worked together and that's the main thing, getting people to work together for
a community. He was still very active in the Civic Council, again, non-
sectarian as always.
Dad continued his life-style or way of life in New Hampshire. He was always
concerned about people. We're talking about basic concerns, direct and imme-
diate action. He would be driving on a country road and see some children
playing in the wintertime in front of a trailer and if he felt that the
children didn't have warm enough clothing, within a few days he would deliver
warm coats, and so forth. It's not a sob story, it happens to be true. He
would see to it that people had food. Again, he would take them cartons of
canned goods, see to it that people had enough money.
He had three homes up there. The homes were on a little bit of a hill, and
people would come to see him. Again, the common sense aspect of his life.
They would have problems, whether it was a man who had a problem with the
foreman at his factory; or a widow whose checks were late; whether someone
didn't have food. No matter what problems they had even marital problems,
people would come and talk to dad. Talk to him about whether they should
buy this or that, or sell. We used to refer to him as "Our father who art
in New Hampshire" and no one deserved this more than my father, the man I
L: I understand that your father became active in politics in New Hampshire,
could you tell us something about that?
A: Yes. To briefly summarize the rest of the story. First of all on one hand,
dad was always very active in politics here in Lake Worth and in the county,
but his activities were behind the scene. In his store, in the small office
that had the partition, the glass half way up, where there was hardly room
for four people to stand side by side, practically every day, we would have
county commissioners, the chief of police, somebody from the sheriff's depart-
ment, constantly coming into discuss matters of concern with my father, asking
for his guidance, etc. This is truly what happened over the years. In that
way, dad was very influential in what was happening here in the area. This
extends not only with helping people with money but whether or not a chief of
police or a city was going to maintain the civil service system that would
include the chief of police. Incidentally, dad was responsible in Lake Worth,
for seeing to it that the Chief of Police remained under civil service, in
order to keep the police department out of politics.
Back to New Hampshire. For years his way of life was helping people. Soon he
became known all over the countryside up there. Finally, people kept insist-
ing and insisting that he run for public office and he did. They convinced
him he should run for the state legislature of New Hampshire. My father did,
and he won. He won handily. People who know him would recognize that his
campaigning was "Vote for the other fellow, he's much better at the job than
My father was the first democrat to be elected in that republican district
since 1922. He served his two year term and he went on to be re-elected two
terms more. He served a total of six years in the legislature and then his
failing health his eyes started going bad caused him to get out of politics.
That's really the story of my father as he culminated his career brilliantly
in New Hampshire.
L: He had a wonderful, wonderful relationship with people and, I am so sorry that
our oral history project had not been started when Carl was with us so that we
could have him on tape.
But, we thank you so very, very much for sharing all of these years that you
had the privilege of being with him. Now as the interviewee,, Zell Altman,
"This is Your Life". We're going to come back to you and your family. I
would like to know why you became a lawyer and what made you decide to practice
in Lake Worth?
A: Well, the answer to the first question is very simple. My mother and father
said "Son, you're going to be a lawyer", so I became a lawyer.
Then, why should I practice in Lake Worth? I thought that that was the best
thing to do and I thought the greatest future would be to practice in Miami.
I did that for a few months after graduating from college. I think I had one
paying client. It was then that I recognized my mother's and father's wisdom
when they said "Son, come home and practice here in your own hometown where
you're known". I came back in November of 1951 and I have been practicing
here for over 30 years.
As far as my public and professional life was concerned, it stands to reason
that I would follow what I grew up with, mainly my mother's and father's
participation. I found the public aspect to be very interesting. I knew
that we had to continue to do things for people. Still under the guidance of
my mother and father, because when you graduate from law school and you're only
26 years old, you're not out of the nest. I will always be grateful for the
control and guidance that my parents exercised over me, even up to the time
when my father died last January. I could never go wrong.
Anyway, to continue the Lake Worth saga. Life continued to go on and we still
had some of the same problems. We still had anti-Semitism, we still had the
Klu Klux Klan. I can recall coming to the office one morning and on the side
of my building three, big black "K"s were painted on there. It's not the most
pleasant sight to see.
Incidentally, this was about the time, and this would have been in the early
to mid 50's, about 1953, when we were concerned with Upton Close who was a
reactionary, very anti-Semitic, who published several periodicals, one of
them being his own, I think it was called "Closer Ups". In 1953 I had been
appointed city attorney here in Lake Worth and Upton Close was attempting to
publish, and run his printing presses here in town for this last periodical,
the "Closer Ups" and I can recall exercising a little bit of discretion in
my opinions to the city commission, to the end result that he was closed
down, period. As young as I was I knew that we could not continue to have
that kind of business happening here in Lake Worth.
Anyway, I stayed with city government, either as city attorney, just as a
personal note on that, I was city attorney for a couple of years from 1953
to 1955, then I ran for the city commission and was elected from 1955 to 1957
and I knew when I did that that I was only going to run for one term because
I really wasn't overjoyed with having to handle city affairs in a way that
would be acceptable to people. I wanted to do them the way I knew they should
be done, so I didn't seek re-election and after my term was up I was reappointed
as city attorney, seeing that we had a little continuity going there.
L: Zell, I believe that you were the first Jewish city official in Lake Worth, is
that not right?
A: I think I was the first one, and probably the only one.
L: There was, as I mentioned, in our history we uncovered the first Jewish mayor
of West Palm Beach, Mayor Mandel, but it would seem to me that you were the
first in Lake Worth and probably the second after Mayor Mandel.
A: It was quite an accomplishment because even as late as 1960 when, despite my
political activities, my involvement in community affairs, in addition to my
involvement with the temple, there was still a strong feeling of anti-Semitism.
I ran for the state legislature and there were four of us in the race, Jerry
Thomas and two other men from the south county. The money was on Jerry Thomas
and the other candidate from Boca Raton, and I was supposed to come in last.
Needless to say, everybody was surprised when Thomas came in first and I came
in second and we were forced into a run off, which was one of the most diffi-
cult things that I have every encountered. It was made even more difficult
because poor Jerry who has now passed away, knew that he had to win and he
felt that.he had to talk about people. He was the only white candidate in
the race, and it doesn't make you feel too good when you know that anti-
Semitism is being thrown in. Well, it was a good race. He won, I lost. I
think I made a good Adlai Stevenson speech.
L: I remember that.
A: Anyway, so that was that. That's life. I still remained active in political
affairs, no longer seeking the public support.
Incidentally, as far as the temple is concerned, and we are concerned with our
role in the Jewish life of the community. As I might have mentioned, dad was
president of the temple. Temple was dedicated and opened, I think, in the
latter part of 1953. For about the following six or seven years after that
there was the enthusiasm of a new house of worship, everybody pitching in.
It took a lot of money to get it built. We all had to sign the mortgage that
we borrowed from the bank. Oh that reminds me, Bill Arnold, I mentioned him
as the co-owner of the Ideal Drug Store. You know that he was, at least in
Lake Worth, and I think for many other local communities, the first Jew who
was on the Board of Directors of a bank. This was really breaking into the
WASP establishment and he was on the Board of the First National Bank and
Trust Company of Lake Worth. It was definitely through Bill's intervention,
together with my father, myself, and several other businessmen who co-signing
the note that we were able to get the mortgage to build the temple.
Anyway, the temple was going along very nicely. In the beginning we didn't
have a rabbi and this meant that there were about four or five of us, my
father, me and Bill Arnold and one or two others, that would rotate to
conduct services every Friday night. We did very well, it was an education.
Finally we had a rabbi and the temple seemed to be well on its way. After
about 3 or 5 years, I sort of drifted out of temple activity, possibly be-
cause I was president of B'nai B'rith for a few years, a couple of years anyway,
and involved in other Jewish organizations.
Well, this went on until probably 1962. One evening, about eight o'clock,
I received a phone call from somebody at the temple and they said they were
having a meeting and the temple was about to close. Could I please get over
there. Well, needless to say I put my shoes on and went over to the temple
and there they were, probably 30 to 45 people. The question before the group
was to vote on whether or not they would close down the temple, keep the build-
ing for a Jewish social hall, and the members of the congregation would go to
West Palm. I'm not going to mention the temple in West Palm but one of them
was having some problems and they needed membership and they started working
on our boys and girls. They convinced them that it would be a better life if
this was closed as far as the temple was concerned. After all that the origin-
ating Jewish families my mother, my father, I and so on had been through
to bring this temple into being and knowing how vitally important it was that
a Jewish house of worship exist in the community, we couldn't let it fail.
If we did it would be, as we now see in later years, as bad as if the State
of Israel lost its war. It would be the same thing. We would lose the respect
of everyone. Basically, in the community, respect is everything.
So,the bottom line was, the people said "Zell we need you" (and I hate to say
it this way), but that's what it was. "Will you be the president, if we agree
to keep the temple open?" and there's no alternative, so you say "Yes". As
a result of that a percentage of the people left and they went to the Shul in
West Palm. We were back at square one, we had fewer members, we might have
had around 28 families that were members of the temple at that time trying to
hold it together. I think our budget at that point was between seven and
eight thousand dollars.
L: That was without a rabbi, of course?
A: Without a rabbi, of course. So, that began a period of either six or seven
years, I don't recall, that I was president of the temple. I've never gone so
regularly to any place as I went to temple, every Friday night, year in and
We couldn't afford to have anybody come in on the high holidays and I remember
making the appeal. Unless someone has had the experience, they can't fully
appreciate it. You're supposed to be a George Jessel and everybody rolled
into one. Well, obviously, there was success.
After a year or so, we knew we had to hire a rabbi and we went through that
procedure. That's another story in itself because we know there are wonderful
men in every profession and being a rabbi is a profession, or it isn't. Just
as there are some nutty lawyers, there are some nutty rabbis. So, we hired
Emanuel Eisenberg and he is with the temple today. I think he will be celebrat-
ing his 19th year.
L: If I remember correctly, Zell, before Rabbi Eisenberg, when I joined Temple
Beth Shalom there was a Rabbi Harry Cohen and a wonderful couple, Rabbi Samuel
Fralich and his wife, Ella, had a lovely daughter named Hadassah. Well, I
believe that Rabbi Fralich is in Gardner, Massachusetts. But that was the time
of my entry and I remember you very well, doing your George Jessel act for the
appeal. Thank God that you were there and that you brought in other leadership
afterwards and that the temple is so well established today, and well respected.
There is one point that somehow or another we have overlooked. That is, your
private life. We've skipped about 10, 12 or 14 years and I'd like you to take
it back to 1944, when I understand you met a very lovely young lady by the
name of Joyce. Would you tell us, please, about that momentous occasion.
A: Joyce and I were married in September, 1944, and we're still happily married.
We have two children, Sherrie, who is now 36 and Debbie, who is 27, and we
feel very fortunate to have children that we're truly proud of, children that
love us as much as we love them.
I graduated from high school in 1943 and married a year later, obviously a
little bit young, but that was apparently all right. Then I went into the
service. I entered the Air Force and stayed in there for 21 years, getting
out before I was 21 and after that going to Palm Beach Junior College, after
that to the University of Miami. That's the story as far as the family is
concerned, outside of the normal trials and tribulations that confront us all.
L: The girls went to Temple Beth Shalom.
A: Yes, Sherrie went to Hebrew School and then she was a Sunday School teacher.
I don't remember whether there was a Hebrew School when Debbie was growing
up because she came 9 years later and that could have been at the time when
we didn't have families with children.
L: I remember having Debbie in my USY class when I was a USY advisor. You forgot
to mention how many grandchildren you have.
A: We have one. Sherrie is married and they have one son, an adopted boy, Zachary
Altman Pachen, a real little prince. Debbie is not married. Sherrie and her
husband own a very successful and large real estate company in Alexandria.
Debbie lives in Alexandria and she's head chef at the New Hilton in Crystal
City, and makes us very proud.
L: Oh, how nice that is. If I'm ever in Crystal City, I'll go see Debbie.
As I recall, Zell, you were active in many organizations besides the temple,
besides the B'nai B'rith, the American Civil Liberties Union. Would you like
to share with us some of the feeling as to why you became active in the ACLU?
A: I have a very basic philosophy, which is sometimes difficult to translate into
real life and that is, we are a nation, a country of laws. These laws must
afford equal protection to every member of our society. The masses, often-
times, don't agree with that. If we can't protect the rights of one, we
certainly lose the rights of the majority. That's it right there, the basic
philosophy. I subscribe to it, at the same time I must admit that I reserve
the right within myself for my own activities to decide whether I have the
stomach to carry out this very high philosophical approach. It's the same
thing with criminal law. I believe in the right of criminals to be defended
and one of the partners is one of the best criminal lawyers you can get. But
I won't practice criminal law because I know that I would be defending someone
who is guilty. While I believe in the system, I don't have to participate in
it personally, but will see to it that they do have that help.
L: The decision that the ACLU has taken in the Skokie Lodge, did you have any
problem with that? They defended the right of the Nazi party.
A: Actually, I did and I didn't because on the one hand, what the city council of
Skokie did was so grossly unconstitutional, such a flagrant throwing up of the
constitutional rights that are guaranteed, it's just unbelievable. But at the
same time, I know that there's merit to the side that says the waving of the
swastika, the leather belts, the marching and so forth, is something that can-
not be denied. It's that type of a situation, on the other side of the fence,
which with other facts, have led to changing of laws. So, it can't be ignored
and it takes the wisdom of somebody much greater than I to try to take it beyon
that for definition.
L: Well, I know that there are other organizations that you have played a very
important role in, albeit not one of front publicity. Would you like to
share with us some of your experiences with some of the many that you have
been involved in?
A: It's difficult to say. You know sometimes it seems like business, not that
it's secret, if it's not out front then it becomes so secret that as the
years pass by you forget what the secret is.
I know with the ADL, as you were, we were very active for years, keeping tabs
on this person, that person, and giving information to the FBI so far as
surveillance of the Klan is concerned. It's all part of what I felt was
necessary in my life, I can't recall too many of the incidents or some of
them can't be talked about. I know of a quiet little affair of being command-
ing officer of a civil air group where I had 1,100 men and women under me.
We did some pretty important work. I enjoyed that. Again, it was helping
people. Somebody would be lost. Somebody was going to die. You were going
to find them and you did. It was an entirely different facet of life, not
like practicing law. You were an administrative officer and you were con-
trolling men and material, and doing this in peacetime.
L: I think there will be a lot of people listening to this tape who are not
familiar with the Civil Air Patrol and perhaps you could tell us just a little
bit about it for the years that you were involved in it.
A: Well, it had one purpose during the war. There were many men that couldn't
get into the service, into the Air Force, because of their age and physical
condition, but they could still fly a plane. The Civil Air Patrol is pretty
important in Florida because of the submarine activity off the coast. The
primary purpose was spotting German U-boats. The secondary purpose was when
ships would be sunk and many people don't know it, but allied ships were
torpedoed off the coast of Florida by German U-boats and the Civil Air Patrol
was a vital part of the air-sea search-rescue missions.
Well, at the close of the war and in the years following, the need changed,
so the direction changed. There was a tremendous growth in the number of
pilots in the country, and they always have accidents and they're always
lost. They're human beings and they need to be found. They can't be found
by getting a couple of Sunday afternoon pilots and saying go out and cover
an area of 20,000 square miles. There must be direction. The whole program
was so important that the United States Air Force continued to fund it and
they knew that it had to be set up on a military structure and that's what
it was. I was commanding officer of it.
L: How many years were you involved in that?
A: Five or six years, something like that.
L: I know that there are very many organizations that over the years, you have
played a very active role in, would you share with us what you consider the
highlights of these organizations?
A: I'll touch on some that I feel have been more important than others, not to
take away from any one of them, but, just for example, we had an organization
called the Tri-County League and this was created and set up probably in 1959
or 1960. Simply three or four public officials and I decided that we needed
to form an organization that would give direction and cohesiveness to the
people of south Florida, who wanted to break the stranglehold of the so-called
"pork choppers" on our state legislature. As most of us know the legislature
was run by the representatives and senators from north Florida. It used to be
said they represented the pine trees instead of people. There's a lot of
truth to that. Anyway, the five of us decided that, notwithstanding the honest
and well intentioned efforts of many organizations who recognized the need for
reapportionment, it obviously hadn't happened. Something else had to come into
being and we brought it into being. The Tri-County League was made up of all
of the elected representatives, officials of Broward County, Palm Beach County
and Dade County. The five of us were the steering committee of it. We raised
hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our efforts were successful. We covered
the state, we brought organizations together.
I was very proud of being part of that. I was president of it for a year,
this was another part of a way of life, of being involved in your community.
Other organizations, again, just to highlight them, ARO, Association of
Religious Organizations, which I became a member of within a year or two after
its organization, in the 60's. This was a beautiful attempt, a successful
attempt, to have the clergymen from all the different religious denominations
come and sit down together. For the first time in many of their lives, non-
Jews would sit down with Jews, and find out that they didn't have horns. The
organization was made up of the clergymen plus a lay member of the respective
congregation. The purpose being, obviously, to foster understanding and
brotherhood, really and truly, and working together in the community as opposed
to having a divided community. Over the years we were very, very successful
and the organization finally stopped because the need wasn't as great then as
it was in the beginning.
L: Do you remember some of the people who were active in that?
A: Harriet Glassner, who is a wonderful woman. She was involved in so many
activities relating to the needs of people and toward providing immediate,
direct help to them. She was one of the founders of the organization. I
can't remember the names of a lot of them.
L: Gregory Favre.
A: Gregory Favre, the editor of the Palm Beach Post, plus some very wonderful,
wonderful members of the clergy. Some of the priests from the monastery
in the north end.
You know, understanding is important to everybody, but when it comes to life
and organizations, stop and think, who wants understanding the most? The
Jews. Because we've always been on the outside. We're one religious denom-
ination versus the other great one, Christianity, which is broken up into so
many different denominations. It was interesting that some of the greatest
understanding came from some of the Catholic priests, who recognized a simple
little thing. When a public meeting would begin, normally, the non-Jewish
clergymen who would give the invocation would always end it with "In the name
of our Lord, Jesus Christ", and every Jew who was part of that group would
feel a twinge, feeling, "He's not talking about me again". You and I both
remember some of the men, and I can't recall their names, but great guys, who
saw that it was more important that a non-Jew speak toward having an ecumenical
invocation and benediction. They were instrumental in achieving that. Anyway,
a tremendous amount of understanding came about because of the Association of
Then, of course, we had the Family Service Organization which we started prob-
ably in 1960. Again Harriet Glassner was involved, and Chris and Cully Scott
were involved. The community, being very conservative, refused to acknowledge
that such a thing as marital discord existed; that there were problems between
parent and child; child and grandparent; etc. We brought this organization
into being, in spite of a tremendous amount of resistance. Resistance is
always translated into lack of funds, money. That organization is in existence
today, operating successfully for the past twenty or twenty-two years.
Then Planned Parenthood began. It was another need, the result of:the social
revolution, (whatever we care to call it), relating to education given to women
of all ages who are capable of bearing children.
The United Nations Organization. Let's see, I was president of Family Service.
I was not president of Planned Parenthood. I helped create it from the legal
standpoint and stayed on as attorney for 7 or 10 years, I don't recall how
long. The United Nations, I was president of the local chapter, and this goes
back to the time when the community, when the public school system would not
allow observation in the school of UN Day. The trials and tribulations, the
awarding of prizes, and finally forcing public officials to take their heads
out of a hole in the ground and recognize the existence of the UN.
The formation of the Funeral Society, probably 10 or 11 years ago, naturally,
I was involved in something like that. One of the finest things we've ever
done because it gave people, still does, the opportunity to pre-plan the
funeral services of their desire. People can do this while they are alive and
well, and not have to make decisions at a time of tremendous stress.
The Emergency Medical Assistance is another immediate help agency which I
created. I wasn't the initiator, but I created the legal work and was involved
in it. I'm still involved with it. This organization raises money for the
sole purpose of assisting women who find themselves pregnant and who know that
there's no way in the world they can continue their pregnancy. An unwanted
child could be a ruin to a marriage. It could become a public charge, or a
social misfit. Also the women may not have money to obtain the termination of
the pregnancy. This organization, Emergency Medical Assistance, raises money
for this purpose. The majority of the people in this county don't even know
it exists. They don't know of the millions of dollars that are being saved
the taxpayer by virtue of its existence and its immediate help.
I've been a member of Kiwanis for almost 30 years. I served as president for
a couple of clubs and been very proud of its activities in the community. I
mean the dollar raising and the dollar spent helping and so forth. I was with
the Democratic Executive Committee, involved in the political situations of
B'nai B'rith as you mentioned before, and many, many other organizations.
L: In conclusion, there are two questions that I would like to ask you. While
you may not be able to answer them specifically, I'd like your thoughts on
One is, did Jews and their businesses, and you as an attorney, of course, did
you face more problems than a non-Jewish attorney would have faced, and do you
think that Jewish families moving into our area today have to face the same
problems that you faced?
A: To respond to the first question, it's difficult to answer with certainty. In
the early years of my practice, maybe the first 10 years before I established
myself, built a reputation and so forth, there were a few times when I felt
that the fact that I was Jewish and the attorney on the other side was not,
had some bearing on the manner in which the judge handled the case, meaning
that if the scales were to tip, they were to tip in favor of the other attorney.
It's something that's intangible, you can't put your finger on it to prove it,
but I had that feeling, and I think that is was probably right. Also, it
could have been that in a smaller town one could become closer to the "Select"
group. Here you aren't part of the community, the real Wasp center. Most
Jews never really become part of the center. To this day no Jewish lawyer is
part of the hard core, WASP, downtown group, in West Palm Beach. They just
aren't. The downtown group is a select group that's been there for 40 or 50
years and no Jew is going to break into it. Because of that I think that it
took longer for me to develop a practice. I'm confident of it. After you are
established, then I think that the momentum of your style and your capability
carries you on.
As far as other members of the business community, the retail people, the whole-
salers, etc., I think that those who are Jewish members of that part of the
community, if they had what somebody wanted,they would deal with them. Re-
member merchants could advertise their prices, their services, whatever. If
people needed what they offered, that overrode feelings that people had, except
for the small hard core who wouldn't spend 5 cents with a Jew if his life
depended on it. So I feel that Jews, generally, were accepted in the business
community, slower, when it was a personal service, like mine.
Now, the other question, whether or not Jews, or Jewish families coming into
the community today are confronted with problems similar to what we had. Num-
ber one, we are suggesting that we did have problems, and frankly, I think we
did, not withstanding the fact that we were a small community and small com-
munities are supposed to absorb more easily than large and so on. We did have
problems, but they were different.
All problems still being under the umbrella entitled "Anti-Semitism" but still
different problems then you were definitely singled out in the smaller com-
munity as a Jew. There was no covering up and getting by easily. Today, with
a population having increased so much, you're part of a large Jewish community
which is an integral piece of the whole pie. So, you don't have the same kind
of problem but as we know anti-Semitism exists today just as strongly as it
ever did but in different forms. It seems to me that the type of activities
a new family coming into the community gets involved in may bring them closer
to the problem of anti-Semitism. Beyond that, I can't give you a more defini-
L: Thank you very much, Zell. I hope that you will be with us at Palm Beach
Junior College on March 22nd when we have our dedication of the Oral History.
I look forward to seeing you again, and I thank you, again, for giving us the
time and the wisdom of your thinking.