The Temple Bombing

Anne Whitehouse reviews Melissa Faye Greene's book "The Temple Bombing".

By Anne Whitehouse

Published April 29, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

The journalist Melissa Faye Greene, author of 1991's acclaimed "Praying for Sheetrock," returns here with a remarkable account of what has become, for many, a forgotten incident: the 1958 bombing of Atlanta's Reform Jewish Temple. Greene skillfully weaves together three stories in "The Temple Bombing." First, and perhaps most notably, she places the bombing firmly within the context of civil rights history. But her book is also an informed study of Southern Jews in the mid-20th century, as well as an inspirational tale of the temple's heroic rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, who dedicated himself to the civil rights movement and urged his congregation to follow his lead.

"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

MORE FROM Anne Whitehouse

Related Topics ------------------------------------------