There was a long line of well-wishers on Feb. 11 to wish Janice Rothschild Blumberg “happy birthday” on her 99th birthday. Some were well known, like Jocelyn Dorsey, the first African American reporter at WSB-TV in Atlanta, and later, the station’s long-time director of editorials and public affairs, or Yoel Levi, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony for 12 years beginning in the late 1980s.
But most were just old friends who had known her since the days when she was the wife of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, the senior rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta. He was a close friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and, from his arrival in Atlanta in 1946 until his untimely death in 1973, was a leading voice for civil and human rights in the American South.
Most of her contemporaries have passed on or were too frail to attend, but just a year shy of the century mark, she remains clear eyed and upright, with a strong articulate voice and a nimble intellect, a natural wonder. She is able to rattle off the names of friends and family members from the 1930s as if it were yesterday and recall, in detail, many of the historical moments of which she has been a part.
In 2021, she published a critically noted memoir of her long life, entitled, appropriately enough, “What’s Next?” The book is subtitled, “Southern Dreams, Jewish Deeds and the Challenge of Looking Back While Moving Forward.” She is thought to be one of few living Americans in recent memory to publish a historical work at her age with such an attention to detail and nuance.
The rabbi who succeeded her husband at The Temple in 1974 was also at the party. Alvin Sugarman, who is 85, came to pronounce a rabbinic blessing for her many years as an important member of the community. For her part, Rothschild felt she had a lot more to do.
“If I have my druthers, I’ll be around a while longer,” she said, “I come from a long-lived family, so I do have hope. I might even make it to 120.”
Few who came for the party doubted her.
The day after her birthday, she was a guest of The Breman Jewish Heritage Museum for a program in their Bagels and Books Series. Her son, William Rothschild, is 74 and, like his father, a Reform rabbi. Unlike his father, however, he is also a graduate of Harvard Law school and a practicing attorney. With a jaunty irreverence and affection that only a son nearing the three-quarters-of-a-century mark can muster, he led his mother through a series of memories and observations that led to her marriage to the young Rabbi Rothschild in 1947.
If I have my druthers, I’ll be around a while longer. I come from a long-lived family, so I do have hope. I might even make it to 120.
It was a time after World War II, as she recounted, when the memory of the lynching in 1915 of Atlanta business executive Leo Frank by a mob of Southern vigilantes hung over the Jewish community here like a dark cloud. Right up through the first years of her husband’s rabbinate at The Temple, she said, “Some people were scared stiff.”
But it didn’t prevent her husband from speaking up about the need for America to come to terms with racial inequality. He started with his first High Holy Days sermon in September of 1947. More than a decade later, it all came to a head when The Temple was bombed during the early hours of Oct. 12, 1958.
Although the blast blew a big hole in the north wall of the building, a large steel safe behind that wall, she remembers, minimized the damage to the rabbi’s office and the sanctuary inside. But the civic shock of the bombing brought the city together, she told her son, in her Breman conversation, in a way that many had not thought possible, since the Frank lynching 43 years before.
“I thought of it as a bookend to the Frank case. The community was brought together, starting with Mayor Hartsfield, who got there right away. He was dressed for church, but he turned his car around and he came to the chapel. One of the pictures that morning went all the way around the world. It was of the rabbi and the mayor together, squatting down outside in the rubble.”
For the rabbi’s wife, who admitted in the Breman program that she grew up always “looking for adventure,” life with her husband on the front lines of the civil rights battle was not what she had originally envisioned. Nor did Janice Rothschild Blumberg have any reason to believe then that she would still be recalling it almost 65 years later.
- Bob Bahr
- Janice Rothschild Blumberg
- Jocelyn Dorsey
- Yoel Levi
- Atlanta Symphony
- Rabbi Jacob Rothschild
- The Temple
- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
- What’s Next
- Southern Dreams
- Alvin Sugarman
- Breman Jewish Heritage Museum
- Bagels and Books Series
- Jewish Deeds and the Challenge of Looking Back While Moving Forward
- World War II
- Leo Frank
- High Holy Days