Atlanta Mourns Matriarch Janice Rothschild Blumberg

Atlanta Mourns Matriarch Janice Rothschild Blumberg

Wife of famed Atlanta rabbi and accomplished historian made history and then wrote about it as an accomplished Atlanta historian.

At her 99th birthday celebration at The Breman Museum last year, Janice Rothschild Blumberg was interviewed by her son, Bill Rothschild.
At her 99th birthday celebration at The Breman Museum last year, Janice Rothschild Blumberg was interviewed by her son, Bill Rothschild.

When this AJT writer visited Janice Rothschild Blumberg for the last time earlier this month, she was resting with several large pillows behind her, a soft blue bed jacket with rounded lapels neatly tied around her. From her Buckhead condominium in a prominent high-rise, she could look out at the broad expanse of the city where she had been born a century before.

And she could reflect on the critical role she had played in the history of the city as the wife of a pivotal figure in America’s civil rights movement, Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild. As The Temple’s Senior Rabbi for more than 27 years, he became a leading voice for racial justice in the South.

Her health had taken a turn for the worse in the weeks leading up to what had been planned as a major celebration of her 100th birthday on Feb. 13. But for a woman who had seen so much history pass before her, she greeted this writer not with memories of the past, but of questions about the future.

Her first question upon entering her room was, “Tell me what’s going on in the world,” which was the perfect cue to describe how the community had been gearing up for months to celebrate her most remarkable life.

Janice Rothschild (far right) with her husband, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr and his wife, Coretta Scott King // Photo Credit: Bill Rothschild

On Feb. 11, The Breman Jewish Heritage Museum lined up Melissa Faye Green, the celebrated author of the best seller, “The Temple Bombing.” She reminisced about how she had caught the eye of the young bachelor rabbi soon after his arrival after the end of the Second World War and swept him off his feet. He wrote to a friend in another city that he would skip all the superlatives that he could enumerate, because she had them all.

According to her son, Bill, his mother’s favorite nickname, was the “Queen of Sheba,” because, just like the celebrated monarch of the Hebrew Bible, she had the power to attract and hold the attention of extraordinary men leading extraordinary lives. For 27 years, she was the gracious and charming presence that stood beside her husband, one of the towering influences in contemporary American Judaism.

Two years after Rabbi Rothschild’s untimely death in 1973, she married David Blumberg, a successful businessman who became the president of the International B’nai B’rith. She spent several years during his presidency touring the world meeting everyone who was anybody.

At the age of 98, Rothschild published a memoir of her long life.

After her second husband passed away in 1989, she became close friends with Rabbi Gunter Plaut, one of Reform Judaism’s foremost Torah scholars and the author of “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” which is a standard text, still found in many Reform synagogues.

With little formal training, she became a respected historian and authored a history of The Temple. She also wrote a critically acclaimed biography of her great-grandfather who was a leader in 19th century Reform Judaism and a chronicle of Rabbi Rothschild’s influence on American public life.

In this writer’s review of her memoir which, amazingly, she published just over two years ago, it’s mentioned that her life often resembled that of Woody Allen’s fictional film portrayal of Leonard Zelig who seemed to show up wherever history was being made.

She took the great violinist Isaac Stern on a late-night tour of Atlanta in her convertible and she bumped into the Dalai Lama in a Washington subway. In a coastal Italian villa, she’s introduced to Pope John Paul II, then she’s off to Jerusalem to view the city with Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, who was assassinated in 1995.

She had been one of the important figures in Alfred Uhry’s successful revival of his Broadway hit, “Parade,” that is coming back to The Fox Theatre next year. In 1989, she was a technical advisor for Uhry’s Oscar-winning motion picture, “Driving Miss Daisy,” and even managed a small role in the production, which filmed one of the scenes in The Temple’s sanctuary.

For months, The Temple was planning its own birthday celebration on Sunday, Feb. 25, and there was even a small cardboard box in the synagogue’s reception area for children and adults to drop their birthday greetings. She died four days before that event on Feb. 21.

At her passing, Rabbi Peter Berg delivered his appreciation of her.

“I often told Janice that she was a walking Sefer – Torah. In so many ways she taught me how to be a rabbi of The Temple, how to be a Southern Jew, to “read history.” How to speak truth to power. How to keep the ego in check. All of us are the beneficiaries of the love she shared and the history lessons she bequeathed to us.”

A memorial service is planned at The Temple on March 11.

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