A new senator and a tie to history

A new book and a new senator remind us of a disastrous historical event.

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Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff thanks voters at the Dunbar Neighborhood Center in Atlanta, Ga, Jan. 5 2021. (Getty Images).

I wasn't yet alive on October 12, 1958, when--at 3:37 in the morning--50 sticks of dynamite exploded, ripping through the side wall of The Temple, Atlanta's oldest synagogue, with a force that blew pieces of the building 150 feet.

But when incoming Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff was sworn in this year with his hand on the Bible--that had belonged to The Temple's Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, whose civil rights activism had made The Temple a target--I recalled the event's history as though I had been there. 

The reason is Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing , a remarkable book that explores the dramatic events leading up to that fateful day and the shockwaves that followed. At the center is Rothschild, who, fiercely criticized segregation and advocated for racial equality.

Rothschild--a former World War II chaplain who was born in Pittsburgh--became a friend and colleague of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King. His outspoken calls for racial justice set him apart from many whites in the South of his generation--including some of his own congregants, who had very real fears born of decades of Southern antisemitism and its ties to violent racism. 

At the time she began The Temple Bombing, Greene was a 38-year-old author whose lauded debut, Praying for Sheetrock, won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. As a journalist and writer, she was determined to crack open the story. Incredibly researched, her award-winning account of the bombing, investigation, and trial reads like a thriller. She dives into Atlanta's political power struggles, the history of its Jewish community, and the murky conspiracy theories of the white supremacists behind the crime. 

Rothschild was not silenced. In fact, leaders and ordinary citizens rallied around The Temple in response, including Atlanta's Mayor Hartsfield, who famously posed for a photo with Rothschild in the rubble of the bombing. That photo still hangs inside The Temple.

Recently, Rothschild's widow, Janice Rothschild Blumberg, age 96, was asked by Moment Magazine about Ossoff being sworn in with her husband's Bible. She said, "He has a sense of how much a symbolic gesture means. This is what people remember, what will go on and resonate…this sense of continuity, of reaching to the past. I can be fairly sure that he knew that by doing something like this, the publicity would go viral, which would ultimately make a statement that would stay in people's minds." 

Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes about) Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute's Director of Marketing and Communications.

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