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An Attack in Atlanta

The Temple Bombing

by Melissa Fay Greene
Addison-Wesley, 502 pp., $25.00

1.

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 difficult to explain. Greene, whom I know slightly (I am also quoted on the dustjacket of her book), is essentially unsympathetic to it, but she has, I think, described it fairly.

Jews in the South have always been an infinitesimal minority group, among Jews and among Southerners: at the time of the Temple bombing they represented 4 percent of American Jews and one half percent of Southerners. Virtually every Southern Jewish family’s official legend begins with a single backpack-toting immigrant ancestor taking off alone from the docks of Charleston or New Orleans or Galveston to become an itinerant peddler. Most of these men wound up establishing dry-goods stores, and perhaps also moneylending operations, in small towns during the middle and late nineteenth century. (My family’s store was in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and it was in business for more than 150 years until Wal-Mart killed it off.)

This meant that they were an even smaller minority than the statistics would indicate: many a Southern town had just one Jewish family, the owner of Hirsch’s or Levy’s, the store on the courthouse square. There was an unstated agreement among these Jews that unobtrusiveness was a prerequisite of living the good life.

At the same time these Southern Jews never denied their Jewishness, they married among themselves, and they ceaselessly engaged in good works by way of various Jewish and secular charities. As they did better, congregating more in the cities and raising their business aspirations above dry goods, they began to concentrate on closing the small but distinct gap standing in the way of full acceptance—on, as Greene puts it, trying to “locate a ramp to the upper tiers that would be open to Jews.” Being admitted to exclusive country clubs and other social organizations, getting the still off-limits jobs in prominent companies and places in the best schools, were the goals discussed in intimate conversation.

The German Jews were very much aware that these projects had been going well up until the time, at the end of the nineteenth century, when Eastern European Jews began arriving in America in great numbers. It was now the greenhorns, not the Deutschjuden, who were shaping the public’s image of Jews, to the intense frustration of many assimilated Jews, North and South. The last few doors that had seemed to be opening to them were now shut.

The response of the German Jews was to encourage these immigrants to be as inconspicuous as possible, while they themselves tried even more fervently to melt into the all-American pot. The Reform movement’s Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which, Greene says, “swept the southern congregations,” banned all religious garb and most of the traditional ceremonies from synagogues, and even backed away from the idea of there being a God at all. Greene describes the Temple Jews in Atlanta calling on their newly arrived Orthodox brethren in the poor sections of the city, to whom “they laid out a few civilized proposals and shared a few tactful suggestions,” such as that the Orthodox school bus erase the Hebrew lettering on its side. During the 1930s, when a group of Eastern European Jews bought a building where the Ku Klux Klan had its offices, Atlanta’s most prominent German-Jewish lawyer personally intervened to keep the Klan from being evicted, because “we don’t want picketing in front of the synagogues.”

The Temple Jews’ worst memory was of the Leo Frank case of 1913, in which the Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory was accused of murdering a fourteen-year-old girl, the child of poor tenant farmers, who had come in to pick up her paycheck. Frank, a member of the Temple, was tried and convicted in an atmosphere of wild public anti-Semitism, whose main spokesman was the populist politician and pamphleteer Tom Watson. The case against Frank was so weak that on the day he was scheduled to be executed his sentence was commuted by the governor of Georgia from death to life imprisonment. But a few weeks later a mob abducted him from the state prison farm where he was being held, and lynched him. To the Temple membership the Frank case was a dramatic refutation of their belief that their probity and refinement would succeed in eradicating prejudice. They realized “they were marginal, they were dispensable, they were still ‘the other’ in the mind of white Christian Atlanta.”

The Temple’s rabbi, David Marx, paid well-publicized visits to Frank in prison, but over the years, “Marx, convinced more than ever that safety lay in invisibility, focused even more intently on assimilation.” Several Temple members interviewed by Greene for her book remember a tacit understanding when they were growing up that Leo Frank’s name was never to be mentioned, even at home, among themselves. As the years passed, the Temple Jews continued to prosper: “A delightful and fulfilling and busy life was lived on the narrow neck of land between Protestant exclusivity and Jewish orthodoxy.” The hope of full acceptance gradually reawakened, along with the conviction that prudence and unobtrusiveness were the means to that end.

After the Second World War Jacob Rothschild, a rabbi from Pittsburgh who was completely unfamiliar with the South and the culture of the Temple, was brought in to replace the aging David Marx. A man of strong principle who believed passionately in both Jewish identity and racial equality, he immediately began to chafe against the congregation’s assimilationism, which Marx had so strongly encouraged; Greene quotes one sermon from 1948 which seems absurd in retrospect but probably was not thought so at the time, where Rothschild urges the Temple’s members to tell their children that there is no Santa Claus. “Ethnicity was not…in vogue in the 1950s,” Greene says, and it was especially unfashionable at the Temple. As Rothschild tried to “staunch the flow of emulating love, admiration, and yearning toward the gentile world,” the Temple resisted. Greene quotes a passage from one of the many angry letters from Temple members found among Rothschild’s papers: “We shall continue to shout from the housetops, ‘THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A JEWISH PEOPLE.”’

Before the Brown decision in 1954, the Temple Jews had approved of the civil rights cause, and some had been activists, but they felt it didn’t have much to do with them. They prided themselves on their benign relations with Negroes, but these relations were highly limited:

…The only black people they knew—and then, by first name only—were white-jacketed waiters and cooks, blue-uniformed janitors and yardmen, and black-and-white-uniformed maids, who commuted long distances by bus or jalopy to work and who occasionally asked for loans or for help with the law.

But Brown released a furious, lawless resistance in the South that had a distinctly anti-Semitic as well as racist tone. The members of the Temple began to see the justification for Rothschild’s eagerness to make common cause with blacks.

Greene’s book reminds us of the now-unimaginable level of anti-Semitism that was pretty much the norm in the mid-century South. In his closing remarks the prosecutor in the Scottsboro Boys trial had told the jury, “Show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” He won a quick conviction. Greene quotes a Look magazine story on Jews from the 1950s reporting as news that the chosen people did such ordinary things as join the Cub Scouts and the Chamber of Commerce.

After the Brown decision but before the Atlanta Temple was bombed, other Jewish temples were bombed in Miami, Nashville, and Jacksonville, and undetonated bombs were found at temples in Birmingham, and Charlotte and Gastonia, North Carolina. The number of temples that were bombed was, of course, a tiny fraction of the number of black churches. In Atlanta, the center of organized anti-Semitic activity was the local chapter of an organization called the National States Rights Party. The NSRP was part of a loose network of right-wing fringe organizations that came into being after the Brown decision, and that had connections with the Ku Klux Klan, which was then undergoing one of its periodic resurgences. Among the other organizations were the White Citizens Councils, groups of Southern businessmen supposedly committed to peaceful resistance to integration but sometimes secretly engaged in violence and terrorism; the Columbians, an Atlanta-based neo-Nazi group; and George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party in Virginia.2 Aside from the White Citizens Councils, these organizations together may have had in all an active membership somewhere around a thousand people—all-white, all-Christian, almost all-male. These were usually people on the fringes of society, many of whom didn’t have steady jobs. The leading members of the Atlanta chapter of the NSRP, which was organized in May 1958, for example, were:

  1. 1

    See Michael Kelly’s refutation in the July 15, 1996, issue of The New Yorker, of the idea that the recent church burnings have been part of a coherent wave of racist activity.

  2. 2

    Greene believes that while the recent church bombings in the rural South are probably not the work of a single coherent organization, these arsonists subscribe to similar racial theories and “they find each other, signal to each other, with these flames.” (“The Fire Last Time,” Newsweek, June 24, 1996, p. 34.)

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