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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
JEWISH FEDERATION OF
PALM BEACH COUNTY
INTERVIEWEE: Selma Horowitz
INTERVIEWER: B. Kern
DATE: March 20, 1982
K: This is an interview with Selma Horowitz, for the oral history project: A
History of the Jewish Community of Palm Beach County, by Beatrice Kern at
the home of Selma Horowitz in West Palm Beach on March 20, 1982.
Selma where were you born?
H: I was born in Brooklyn. I was about three years old when we moved into a
house on 21st Ave. in Bensonhurst. It was a very important street. A street
with many "balabatim" who later became important in Jewish philanthropy. My
parents had a big beautiful house with a porch and rockers. I had a brother
4 years older than I. We were loving and devoted to each other.
K: Was this your entire family?
H: That was the basis of the family. One of the reasons that my father bought
a fourteen room house was that in the event one of our relatives needed a
dwelling place, there would be room for him. As it happened, two grand-
parents and a maiden aunt came to live with us, and they were my friends.
My mother was a wonderful cook. We practically celebrated dinner. The table
was set with thick linen and shining silver. She was a great cook. It was
always an event to have dinner, and to have my father come home for dinner.
We sat around the table and listened to the wonderful stories he had to tell
us. There were many events I can recall where the dining room table was the
important part of my growing life.
I'll never forget the day that a beggar rang our doorbell, and a maid went to
answer the door. When we were eating we never got up. The maid came in and
announced that there was a beggar at the door. My father said, "Escort him
into the washroom, have him wash and lead him into the dining room, and set
a place setting for him". Well he came in, in fact he ate with us. We made
him feel welcome and asked him questions about where he came from and where
he was going, and how things were going with him. He really was a jolly
fellow, with all his unhappiness. And it seems to me he was very ill. He
was very thin. He said he was on his way up to the mountains because he had
consumption. That made no difference, he was served. We all ate together.
My mother said to him "Put on a napkin, youare spoiling your coat". "That's
not my coat, that's Finkelstein's coat", he answered. Of course we didn't
laugh then, but now when I think about it I laugh. He was a dear person, he
loved our family for what we did. He came back twice a year, and on his way
out my father gave him a roll of bills in his hand and said, "Go safely, and
come back on the next holiday".
K: Selma, what other recollections do you have of that old house?
H: I've many recollections. I remember when I washed the dishes and my brother
dried them. We always had help, but my mother always had us help the help.
It was probably part of my bringing up. We didn't know that, we just did it.
I remember that my brother would instruct me and constantly teach me the
things that I should do, and the things that I should not do. I remember
playing a lot on the street, with my friends, who lived in the houses on the
street. I was a great kid for playing, stoop ball, potsie, jump rope and
games. You name it.
My mother had to call, "Come in, It's time to do your homework"! Of course
I did my homework. What kid likes to do homework? But I did it real fast,
Because I had an idea in the back of my head, that I was going to visit with
my maiden aunt, who chose to live in an apartment that my father set up for
her on the third floor of our house. My mother's kitchen wasn't kosher
enough for her, because we had a non-Jewish maid. My aunt Louise was the
best story teller in the whole world. She would tell me how the Emperor,
Franz Josef would dress up in his plain clothes, and visit the poor, and
hand out money. That was a fairy tale to me, which I shall never forget.
She told me that my grandfather came to this country first from Austria,
and then went back to get his family and bring them to the United States.
She told me how my grandmother's family sat shivaa" for her because she was
going to this unknown place, the United States of America. Later in life
I remember my father in adoration of my grandfather, for having made this
wonderful decision, this grave decision to come here.
She told be about, when my father was young, (he was a little boy when he
came, in the 1890's). When he was about seven years old, he enrolled in the
public schools of New York, and they lived on Columbia Street on the East
Side. He went to school, and he must have been bright, because his teacher
wanted to skip him four classes. My grandmother was much against this, and
my aunt said, he didn't listen to his mother. He skipped those classes. It
told me something about my father. He didn't always obey his mother, but I
never really had that much courage. He was a very courageous man. She told
me of the books that she read. She would read all the great classics,
Voltaire, the American classics. She was a learned woman.
K: You're talking about your Aunt Louise now?
H: My Aunt Louise. Well, the time was getting late and I had to come downstairs
to go to sleep. Next morning was school. So I was bade goodnight with a warm
kiss. Then I had to approach those horrible stairs; they were much higher
than my legs. But somehow or other I sat going down, (maybe it seemed like
a hundred steps, but there were probably about twenty,) and came down to my
bed. I think of those wonderful stories, and of listening to the trolley car
on 86th Street go cloppety-clop or clunkety-clunk. That's right it was the
horse that brought the milk wagon that went clackety-clack, and I used to
hear him about 4 o'clock in the morning.
I also remember when the ice man used to bring the ice, (my mother didn't
have the frigidaire then,) and we used to jump up on the back of the man's
truck and steal a piece of ice, and suck it, and it was the nearest darn
thing to ice cream.
Then of course there were Hebrew lessons. I remember sitting on the piano
stool and driving poor Mr. Weiss crazy, because I used to turn on that stool
while he was trying to teach me my prayers. The girls, my friends, were
standing outside looking and waiting for me to finish. After I was finished
we could go to play, and they were impatient. I remember that I had a lot
of friends who travelled on Saturday, but I never did. I was a little
jealous of the fact that as I grew older, they could go into New York on
Saturday, after all we went to school every other day. They went in on
Saturday, and went to the big movies in New York, and I never did that. The
best I could do was walk to a game with my beloved friends, or play or con-
verse. There was shul in the morning, and walking in the afternoon and
being with our friends. And I think maybe I was lucky because, I had the
best friends. The ones that went into New York, turned out to be not the
best. What else can I say about those joyful days. You know I hear people
say, they regret the things in their youth. They had trouble growing up.
Being a teenager was terrible. I think they were the greatest days. Sadness
comes with learning more about life.
K: What transportation did your friends use when they went into New York in those
H: Well in those days transportation was easy. They had the subways on the West
End Line, by the time they went, because by that time we were already 13, 14.
But when I was younger we did not have the subway. As a matter of fact my
father used to go on a trolley to the ferry, and take the ferry across the
East River which took him to Nassau Street where his office was. My father
was an attorney and he had his office pretty near where the courts were. And
therefore, when he came home after a big day, and going through that kind of
transportation, believe me, we loved him up, because we knew he was going
K: How long did that trip take?
H: Well, I would judge it would be about 2 hours. Easily 2 hours.
K: As compared with what, after the elevators were put in?
H: After that, it was about three-quarters of an hour to an hour. The trolleys
that you took in the summer were the open-air trolleys, and you stood on the
side, or you could slide in and sit on a chair. But it was very, very nice.
It was fun. I think that when my father went, they were horse-driven in
those days, but later became electrical.
I remember one night, when my father came home for dinner, that we waited and
waited to see him, and it was a trauma. He had a broken finger. Something
had happened on this trolley ride that caused him to punch a fellow in the
nose. That fellow said something about his being a dirty Jew. My father was
not a person to take that kind of thing. He was strong, he was wiry, and he
punched this fellow in the nose, and he came home with a broken finger. My
mother was very upset. But he said, "Don't feel bad. That man has a broken
nose". We were so excited about the whole thing. It was a big event. Of
course we didn't like the idea of that kind of talk. We sat down and we had
our dinner just like always.
K: Were there any other means of transportation?
H. Well, my dad bought a car. He didn't know how to drive but he hired a
chauffeur. My folks liked to go to the Catskill Mountains in the winter.
So they hired this chauffeur and the chauffeur took them to the Catskill
Mountains. When they got there, the engine was steaming and there was a
lot of trouble with the car. So my father felt that it was the chauffeur's
fault. He paid him and let him go. He decided that he was going to drive
the car home without having had a lesson or any instruction. He got into
the car and figured out that he would be able to make the trip. There
weren't too many cars on the road in 1917, so he took the chance. And he
drove home, the car was filled with gas, and somebody had already fixed
the car, so that it could run. He filled it up with gas and he ran the
car until the gas tank was empty. But he got back to where we lived in
Bensonhurst, and went around the block until the gas ran out, and only
then stopped the car.
K: Was that because he didn't know how to stop the car?
H: He didn't know how to stop the car, and we were standing out and watching,
him. My brother and I were standing in front of the house cheering, waiting
for them to stop the car, and he kept going around the block because he
didn't know how to stop it.
K: What kind of a car was it?
H: I think it was a Studebaker, one of the first Studebaker's with the eisen-
glass and with the turned up sides and all that. We had a great big fur
blanket in the back. It was a bear blanket. Then I think we bought a
K: Did your father finally take lessons?
H: Oh he became a driver. My father was a good driver. He never asked any-
more questions about how you drive. He just got into the car and after that
he drove. He asked somebody how to stop. He did make that trip up to the
mountains every single year. One thing about my family, we never really
needed baby-sitters. We had two grandparents and my aunt. It was always a
lot of fun to be left with my grandparents because I was the third in an
auction pinochle game. Without me they couldn't play auction, they had to
play two-handed pinochle. So I was very important to them at the tender
age of eight.
K: Where did your grandparents come from?
H: My mother's family came from Kurland, which is a borderline of Prussia and
Russia. At that time the Russians were conscripting the men into the army.
That was White Russia. To avoid conscription, my grandmother moved her
family into the big city, which at that time was St. Petersburg, in order
to get lost. She opened up a hat store with flower trimmings. She really
made a good living, and was able to take care of her children's education,
vacations and so on.
K: And your grandfather?
H: My grandfather remained in the background. I have a feeling whenever an
officer came to the door, they said that he was dead, or something to that
way of thinking. It wasn't too long after that my grandmother decided that
the best thing was to get over to this wonderful land of America. They
really didn't have too much trouble here, because they were not very poor.
She had quite a business and was able to open a factory of artificial flowers,
which was very successful. Probably the number one artificial flower business
in the country. The children followed in line. Two of them became doctors,
and two of them went into textiles, two of them went into the flower business,
and they were all very successful. I would say that they were all pretty well
This family was interested in the arts. Each child played an instrument, and
in later years I delighted in family reunions. The dinners were very elabor-
ate and after the dinners we would all join in singing and playing the
K: What about your father's father?
H: As I said before. My father came to this country. He was not pushed from
Austria. There was no reason for him to have to leave Austria. He came
here in search of the new land. He had four sons. He came here, and his
family came here, with the purpose of assimilating into this new country.
They were strong people. Strong in attitude.
There were five children; the oldest was my aunt of whom I spoke earlier.
She stayed home to take care of her mother who was not well. Three of them
worked in sweat shops, and my dad, who was the youngest, went to school.
They lived very frugally on the East Side. My father used to say we all
lived peacefully in one room. Everybody in the family brought in some
money into the house except for my father. He was really my grandmother's
pet. She wanted him to have the education of a rabbi. Of the greatest.
He went right through school to college, law school, and all the time he was
working. He worked for a boy's clothing house. And when he got his law
degree, the man for whom he was working, said to him "On my time you became
a lawyer"? It bothered my father. He was very grateful to his parents for
being allowed to pursue the things that his wonderful sisters could not.
They had to work. I don't think that the pleasures that he derived, and
what he got, were sufficient to pay for the torture in knowing that his
sisters were working in sweat shops. And he was determined in his mind that
he would better those conditions someday, or do something in that field. He
never forgot that his sisters were working in dim lighting and with no facil-
ities. I think it gave him a purpose in his law practice, because he did
accomplish great things later on.
K: Your father grew up on the East Side and then got his education in New York.
When did he come to Bensonhurst?
H: My parents were already married-when they came to Bensonhurst. They went
there on their honeymoon. Bensonhurst, at that time was considered a lovely
seashore resort. It had a big hotel on Gravesend Bay and it was treed, and
not very populated. It was really like the country, only it was along the
shore. They liked it so much on their honeymoon, that they planned someday
to be able to buy or rent a house there when they brought up their children.
And they did that.
My brother was born in New York, he was about three when they came and rented
an apartment, in a two family house. Actually it was two apartments, and I
was born in that house. But it wasn't too long after that we moved into this
wonderful big house that I spoke of at the beginning. I went to school from
that house and I met my friends really on that street, and through the school.
The synagogue that I grew up with was one that my father built, I guess I must
have been about eight when he was instrumental in buying a piece of land, and
put all his energies to collecting and getting enough money to build a beauti-
ful edifice on this corner. It is there today. It is a magnificent structure.
I'm proud to say that he was the first president, and he was the strength of
the erection of that building. As a matter of fact my husband was the first
bar mitzvah in that synagogue.
K: You said you went to school in that neighborhood. What influences can you
remember that came during that time?
H: My brother and I both went to the school. P. S. 128, a wonderful school. My
children later went there. I remained in Bensonhurst until both my parents
died. I was a member of that synagogue for all those years, and was married
in that synagogue. My friends in my early life, made me feel as though I was
part of another family of children.
My father's best friend from law school married and moved on the next block.
They were a family of two boys and two girls. The younger daughter was my
very, very close friend. I regarded her really almost as a big sister. I
still delight in seeing her. I think I was about four-years old and she
suggested that we take a walk to Coney Island -- the famous Coney Island.
It was only about three miles away. I never questioned her judgement. So we
started out on our adventure. I remember on the way we talked to children,
They seemed to look different then we did, they were dressed more shabbily,
but they were friendly. We made many friends on this long walk, and I liked
the walk very much. The two of us did, until we became so tired that we
couldn't walk anymore. And my friend said we better start looking for a
policeman to take us back, because neither of us had the energy to make the
return trip. He took us back and my mother was so happy to see me, that she
did love me up. But my brother took me upstairs to my room and gave me a
lecture I shall never forget, about being weak-willed and how I worried my
mother. Funny that later on my daughter, in her pre-school age did something
very similar. Except she did it on her own, nobody led her. She was missing.
She eluded the baby sitter, and when I came home the sitter was frantic look-
ing for her. We looked in every possible place and finally found her working
for my grocer. She was offered a box of raisins, if she would set up the cans
on the shelf, and like my mother I was so happy to see her that I hugged her
and kissed her.
K: How old was she?
H: She must have been about four,same age as I was when I left. Coney Island
was really a wonderful place. I mean I can understand any child being mes-
merized to go there, because it was the center of playland. There we had
Luna Park with its Whip, its Chute-the-chute, with roller coasters. I
truthfully was afraid to go on all of them. But I did, just to prove that
I could do it.
K: Tell us more about those childhood days in Bensonhurst.
H: Well Bensonhurst was a great place to grow up in. The people were proud to
be Americans and proud to be Jews. They felt their obligations to the
secular world as well as the religious institutions. My father used to put
the American flag on that long pole every American holiday. And the events
were celebrated. We were very proud.
The Jewish holidays Rosh Hashonah, Passover, brought the family together and
of course they were always wonderful. The anticipation, preparation for
these holidays was great. It was a time that I got new clothes. It was a
time that we ate special cooked dishes. It was a time for questions and
answers, for visiting from all relatives, and of course the services in the
temple, and that special choral group that was hired to help the hazan on
the big long holidays.
My brother and I would walk home from the synagogue singing "Em Yeled, Em
Yeled Sha-shu-im". We'd be imitating the little choir boy the soprano in
the choir. And now I have the great joy of hearing my own precious grandson
conducting an entire Shabbos evening service, with his beautiful soprano tone.
My father's Yivorechecho with special blessings on the eve of the holiday is
one thing that I shall never forget.
Other happy times were when I'd come home from school with my friends, call
up to Aunt Louise. She was ready, all dressed and set. We took our bathing
suits and put them on, and off we went to our Gravesend Bay which was about
three long blocks away. We trailed Aunt Louise, trailed her long, long
dresses, hung on to her hands, each one had one hand and off we went. We
swam the breast stroke when we got there. We did not know, it was poluted.
That was the cleanest way and safest way to swim. But we loved it. We
enjoyed it thoroughly.
When we were through with our swim, Aunt Louise would see that we were clothed
properly, and back we went, passing a grocer on the way home. I don't think
my friend and I will ever forget this grocer man, we talk about it since. He
was a tall stern man, and my aunt would go in with three pennies and say we
would like 3 Vienna Crackers. Give the man the three pennies and each one of
us munched away at a cracker and walked home.
I had friends in the neighborhood, I still have my friends from around the
block, and my friend who was like a sister. But I met a new friend and this
was a young child who had come from another neighborhood and came into the
third grade completely new in this neighborhood. She had gone to school
where all the children were gentile, her neighbors were gentile, and she was
very shy. And in this class there was a little boy who enjoyed making fun
of her big eyes that went into creases when she laughed. And he kept making
her laugh and I seem to be concerned that the teacher would not like that so
I turned to the child and said, "Cut it out kid", to the little boy. Anyway
I forgot the story, but my friend reminded me years later that that was how
we met. She waited for me after class to thank me for the kindness, for
saving her from this little boy. I said to her, "Which way do you go kid",
and asked her name, and she said "I'm going this way". She was about half
my size, and of course my mother always gave me a nickel to buy candy. The
man with the pushcart on the corner or our school block was there, and I
spent 5 pennies buying two for each, my friend and myself and sharing the
other penny getting two for a penny and giving her one, and one for myself.
And we walked home. I didn't pay too much attention because I had to get
home and start playing. I had a whole bunch of friends on the street, and
I was very glad that school was over truthfully. The very next day after
school, there was my new friend, waiting near the pushcart for me when I
came out of school. And she said that I said "I have no money today kid,
go home on your own". And she said "Today I have a nickel, and I would
like to share it with you". Well this really made a true friendship and we
have been sharing our nickels ever since. We have been sharing our thoughts,
sharing the depths of our thoughts, our joys and our sorrows together to this
day, till this minute.