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On October 12, 1958, the Reform Jewish synagogue in Atlanta exploded when 50 sticks of dynamite detonated--a key moment in Civil Rights history, as vivid and telling in its way as Rosa Park's refusal to change bus seats. Now, the National Book Award-winning author of Praying for Sheetrock looks back on this pivotal event, creating an extraordinary picture of a city, a region, and indeed a country on the cusp of monumental change.
The Temple Bombing relies heavily upon Greene's interviews and oral histories, as well as her extensive research, which she unites in a lucid, propulsive narrative. The 1950s and '60s in the Deep South were an intensely troubled and violent time; lives were placed on the line in confrontations all over the region, and Southern Jews were no exception. "Across Dixie, some of the fights over racial prominence involved not only white against black and black against white, but Christian-born white against Jew," Greene testifies. "Ten percent of the bombs from 1954 to 1959 were cast at Jewish targets -- synagogues, rabbis' houses, and community centers."
In this light, she interprets the bombing of the temple as not only a violent demonstration of anti-Semitism, but as one act in a regional campaign of terror against civil rights targets. No one was ever convicted of the bombing. Despite her best efforts and access to extensive documents relating to the investigation and two trials -- which ended in a mistrial and an acquittal -- Greene does not succeed in solving the crime (although she does put forward one possible scenario).
While the story of the bombing and the subsequent courtroom dramas are told with acerbity and wit, the true merit of this book lies in Greene's ability to create a profound social context for her story and in her compelling portrait of its hero, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild. Despite the discomfort of many in his congregation, Rabbi Rothschild used his pulpit and his position to speak out vehemently for racial equality. "Stories of integrity and courage ought to be rescued," Greene writes, in the conclusion of this vibrant social history, in which she celebrates the interracial and interreligious cooperation that helped to shape the successes of Atlanta's civil rights movement. -- Anne Whitehouse
During the night of Oct. 12, 1958, 50 sticks of dynamite exploded under the august old Reform synagogue known simply as the Temple. It was a warning to Jacob Rothschild, the Temple's outspoken rabbi. Greene, author of the highly acclaimed Praying for Sheetrock (1991), unequivocally crowns Rothschild a hero. But he's very much a modern hero—a regular guy, a rabbi with no particular spiritual gift, who found greatness when, arriving in Atlanta in 1946, he first met Jim Crow. In sermon after sermon he harangued his congregants to fulfill the prophetic call for justice by supporting integration. Rothschild was heard with reluctance—not only by the Temple members, but by the white supremacist, anti- Semitic National States' Rights Party. Five party members were charged with the bombing, but only one, George Bright, came to trial, and a weak government case led ultimately to his acquittal. Greene does an exceptional job of portraying the social forces at work in 1958: Atlanta, a city hell-bent on progress; the Temple Jews, wealthy, assimilated, but still insecure; the city's peaceful movement toward integration; and a backlash among a small group of fanatics, whom Greene cannily portrays as embittered misfits. The present casts a constant shadow over the past here: Oklahoma City invariably comes to mind, and the courtroom antics of Bright's flamboyant defense attorney make Cochran & Co. look like amateurs. But Greene's flaw is excess. Her image-filled prose can be too rich, her historical background too digressive. And she editorializes annoyingly when people's words and actions speak clearly for themselves.
Still, a powerful retelling of a crucial tragedy that, in all its elements, resonates all too loudly today; and a tribute to Rothschild—a forgotten, well, hero of the civil rights movement.