The bombing that shattered complacency

April 23, 1996|By Judith Boltoll-Fasmall | Judith Boltoll-Fasmall,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Most moviegoers remember it as a scene in "Driving Miss Daisy." However, for the people of Atlanta it was a defining moment; a memory so vivid that almost anyone could tell you where they were when they first heard about it. In the early morning hours of Oct. 12, 1958, 50 sticks of dynamite blew apart the sanctuary of Atlanta's prominent Reform Jewish Temple, known simply as the Temple.

In her new book "The Temple Bombing" (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.), Melissa Fay Greene uses her prodigious talent as a writer and social historian to relate the events that surrounded this critical moment in civil rights history. Along the way, she weaves together personal accounts with public histories of desegregation, Southern Jewry and domestic right-wing extremism into a richly detailed and instructive narrative. Ms. Greene will be discussing and signing her book at Bibelot Books this evening at 7:30.

Ms. Greene's first book, "Praying for Sheetrock," lyrically recounted the process by which politics in McIntosh County, Ga., finally entered the post-civil rights era. Fifteen years in the making, the book originated with Ms. Greene's experiences as a paralegal for the Georgia Legal Services Program. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

"The Temple Bombing" confirms Ms. Greene as an accomplished writer of literary non-fiction. In both of her books she has combined a novelist's sensibility with a reporter's penchant for the facts. A review of "The Temple Bombing" in the New York Times Book Review praised Ms. Greene's "gifts as a story teller" and described the book as "illuminating." Although the review in the Washington Post was less enthusiastic, Ms. Greene's work was deemed "an important book that brings to life a pivotal time and place in Southern history."

During a long telephone interview, Ms. Greene pointed out that "The Temple Bombing" is "a very personal book for me. The heart of it is identity. It raises some interesting questions about the way you embrace who you are."

Those questions undoubtedly resonated with Temple congregants who suddenly realized that they had not seamlessly blended into Atlanta society. The blast also exposed that society's underlying racism as a perverse integration of blinding hatreds. In effect, the bombers had melded blacks and Jews into a single enemy.

The late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild commands the moral center of the book. Ms. Greene pored over the collection of his vast personal papers at Emory University and consulted closely with his widow. The result is a three-dimensional portrait through which the reader is privy to Rothschild's inner thoughts.

A Pittsburgh native, Rothschild arrived in Atlanta in 1946 directly from Army duty as a chaplain. He succeeded David Marx, an old-style Reform rabbi, who preferred to be addressed as Reverend. Ms. Greene writes that Rothschild inherited a congregation that "ooh'ed and ah'ed over the trays of trinkets delivered every hour by the secular world . . ." He began to lead his flock back by gently chiding them for sending their children to Sunday School with ham sandwiches or planning elaborate Christmas parties.

By the early 1950s, most of his sermons were devoted to civil rights. He rankled those few who attended his Friday night services, but he frightened those who still remembered the 1913 lynching of Leo Frank. Frank, a transplanted Northerner, had been a Temple member and president of the local B'nai B'rith lodge when he was convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who had worked in his factory.

The governor believed Frank was innocent and commuted his sentence to life in prison. That decision outraged a mob, which abducted Frank from his jail cell and lynched him. The trauma did not heal fully until Georgia granted Frank a posthumous pardon in 1986. Evidence had surfaced that a janitor at the factory was the murderer.

In the wake of the lynching, the congregation was at first counseled to lie low. That was easy to do until the bombing. Ms. Greene writes that "the bomb that blew a hole in the Temple's outer wall broke into the psyche and dream life of the congregation for years to come. The most private place, this place where they gathered in order to be among Jews and to behave like Jews, had been stalked."

The five men who came together to form the Confederate Underground in Atlanta were eventually arrested and tried for the bombing. None were convicted. The most articulate and educated among them was George Bright, who, during his recent interviews with Ms. Greene, denied any involvement in the bombing. In the book, Ms. Greene goes back in time to parallel Mr. Bright's hermetic life in one corner of Atlanta with that of Rothschild's busy life in another.

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