The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene is about the bombing of Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, Georgia which occurred October 12, 1958, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. This is the same bombing that appears in Driving Miss Daisy and the Rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was a strong supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rabbi Rothschild came to work in the reformed temple in 1946 and led his congregation with a conviction drawn from the words he read in the prophets, a call to seeing justice brought to everyone and daring to speak out for desegregation. An intellectual, he had the sort of self-deprecating humor and a down-to-earth quality that allowed him to be a part of the community.
Through Greene’s superior ability to tell a story, the reader cannot help but see Rothschild as a flawed yet heroic man, one who lived by the powers of his convictions and did what he believed his God would want him to do. Greene’s research into the events draws heavily on primary sources—from face-to-face interviews, articles, and more. It is chilling for me to imagine her sitting in the room with some of the men, the ones who were accused of placing the bombs. It’s hard to imagine her listening to anti-Semitic vitriolic rhetoric and maintaining any semblance of grace.
The story is a powerful one, a harsh reminder of the brutality of hate, how racism rarely begins and ends with a single people and how it can manifest, explosively, in appalling ways. In spite of the painful history Greene tells, her prose is easy to read and compelling. Furthermore, she manages to maintain an objective dispassion throughout the text, never indulging in speculation or pointing fingers without evidence to support her contentions. It is her ability to maintain an emotionless balance, to not make accusations where there is no clear evidence, that gives this book its merit. It’s her prose—engaging, interesting, and more—which makes this book difficult to put down.
(On a personal note, after reading Gone With the Wind, I was reminded of the anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of Atlanta’s history but I knew very little of it. Greene goes into great detail explaining how the Jewish community became a marginalized part of the community. Rich’s department store, after all, was a mainstay of Atlanta business and was founded by a Jewish man. Nevertheless, I am not naïve enough to think that a Jewish presence means there is no anti-Semitism. It was especially interesting to me to read about how the different communities within the Jewish community responded to the times—the truth about the Holocaust coming to the forefront of American awareness after World War II, how the Orthodox responded to the Reformed, how the immigrant Jews from Russia felt towards their American brethren, how the Zionist movement and the establishment of the Israeli nation influenced the politics of the community. And all of this in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. It was, for me, a very interesting book to read. Not sure why it took me so long to get around to it. I think I expected it to make me angry. It didn’t. Sad, perhaps, to know we have come a long way but never seem to have come far enough. What is that saying? The more things change, the more they stay the same.)