The Temple Bombing
One Saturday night in October 1958, a large homemade bomb went off in the most prominent synagogue in Atlanta. It blew a hole in the wall, but nobody was inside, and there were no injuries. Though barely remembered today, the bombing created a national sensation; unlike the church burnings of the past few months, it looked like the work of organized conspirators.1 Within just a few days, the Atlanta police had arrested six right-wing terrorists of a type familiar in the South then, and today familiar throughout the country. Two trials were held in quick succession, but in both cases the juries, all-white, all-male, and all-Christian, could not arrive at a guilty verdict. The bombing went unpunished.
Melissa Fay Greene, in reviving the case, isn’t primarily concerned with finding out who planted the bomb, though she does hazard a convincing guess at the end of her book. Her aim is to use the bombing as a way of recreating the feeling of a long-ago time and place, and of constructing a moral parable about ethnic pride and racial brotherhood. The temple that was bombed was the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation on Peachtree Road, the thoroughfare that leads from downtown Atlanta north through the fanciest residential neighborhoods. It was a grand neoclassical pile on a hill, symbolizing the serene and successful lives of Atlanta’s assimilated, German-American Reform Jews.
In 1946 the Temple hired a new rabbi from the North named Jacob Roth-schild, an ardent anti-segregationist who preached with increasing fervor to his skeptical flock the twin causes of a more observant Jewishness and support for Negro rights. The congregation seems to have reacted to his message either not at all or with mild annoyance, until the bombing. The bombing, Greene believes, changed all this, and brought out into the open the complicated web of relations among five distinct groups in Atlanta: the Temple Jews, the less assimilated Russian and Polish Jews in Atlanta’s Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, the black leadership (including, notably, the King family), the Protestant Atlanta business and political establishment, and the terrorists of the racist far right. Of these the Temple Jews are, by contemporary standards, the least familiar: Jews who held religious services on Sunday mornings, who consecrated their Temple with a concert of Christian music, who celebrated Christmas, who had never attended a seder or a bar mitzvah, who would not even allow themselves to say the word “Jew.”
I grew up in a doppelgänger world in New Orleans. Where Atlanta had the Temple on Peachtree, we had Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue, equally staid and impressive monuments to the success of the Reform German Jews. The New Orleans equivalent of Jacob Rothschild in the civil rights movement, Rabbi Julian Feibelman of Temple Sinai, who is mentioned in passing by Greene, was my cousin by marriage. A quarter-century of living away from New Orleans has taught me how strange the subculture I grew up in seems to outsiders, and how…
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