When Janice Rothschild Blumberg was born in 1924, George Gershwin had just performed his “Rhapsody in Blue” for the first time. In Atlanta, the old synagogue building belonging to The Temple was still located at South Prior and Richardson Streets, near the future site of the main stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Ninety-seven years later, Blumberg is an accomplished historian and has been described as “a living Atlanta treasure.” The widow of famed mid-century Atlanta rabbi, Jacob M. Rothschild, she is about to publish the story of her long and memorable life.
Growing up in Atlanta, as a fifth generation Jewish Georgian, she was advised by her mother and grandmother to marry not for material possessions but for the wealth of accomplishment. She found that in Rabbi Rothschild, who had arrived in Atlanta in 1946 to become the first new rabbi at The Temple in 51 years. He had impressed her during his first High Holy Days sermon, which she says was mostly about not only becoming a better Jew but also a better American.
“In 1946, he said something about racial integration that many people didn’t remember. He was so appalled by the separate black and white water fountains and bathrooms and things like this that he said something about it. Nobody remembered it because the rest of the sermon had to do with bringing them more into Judaism. Of course, then, they didn’t connect the other part with the Judaism, which was about the message of the ancient prophets, but as time went on he got them into that. It was a long-term process.”
The following year, at the age of 23, she married the new rabbi and set off on a lifelong adventure that she says would not have been possible if she hadn’t been his wife.
Standing by the side of Rabbi Rothschild, as she describes it in the book, was not only to be an eyewitness to history but also to help make it, particularly after The Temple was bombed by white supremacists in 1958.
She and Rabbi Rothschild became close friends with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta. They hosted a banquet in Atlanta honoring the couple after King won the Nobel Peace Prize.
As the rebbetzin at The Temple in Midtown, she was at the epicenter of efforts to bring about social change in Atlanta and the American South. Today, she is one of the last surviving links to that tumultuous civil rights period of the 1950s and 1960s.
But this is only one part of the story that Blumberg relates in her book, “What’s Next?: Southern Dreams, Jewish Deeds and the Challenge of Looking Back While Moving Forward.”
Two years after Rabbi Rothschild’s untimely death, she married David Blumberg, the influential head of the International B’nai B’rith. During the marriage, she met many of the political and religious celebrities of the world, both high and low.
Sections of the books read a bit like the 1983 Woody Allen film “Zelig,” in which the title character seems to show up everywhere either by accident or design.
So it is with Janice Rothschild Blumberg. Here she is touring Atlanta in her convertible with the great violinist Isaac Stern; there she is bumping into the Dalai Lama in the Washington subway. At a coastal Italian villa, she’s introduced to Pope John Paul II. Then it’s off to Jerusalem to gaze across the city’s historic skyline with Yitzhak Rabin. They’re all here, Presidents Carter and Ford and a promising young governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton. There’s even Janice with Monica Lewinsky at the Cosmos Club in Washington and with former secretaries of state Madeline Albright and Henry Kissinger.
Today, Blumberg lives comfortably in her condo on Peachtree Road, surrounded by framed photographs and reminders of all the history she has witnessed.
On the crowded bookshelves is a critically acclaimed volume she has written about her great-grandfather, a prominent Reform movement rabbi of the late 19th century. She published it when she was 88.
Nearby is the Plaut chumash, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, used in most Reform congregations today. The book of biblical commentary was written by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, with whom she had an intimate relationship after her second husband died.
There is probably little that Blumberg hasn’t seen or done in her 97 years that is not in this book. But the question for the still-active, still-opinionated author of a book titled “What’s Next” is, of course, obvious.
“Maybe I’ll do another book,” she suggests. “I have some ideas. Maybe I can get it together for my 100th birthday.”
Janice Blumberg Rothschild is featured in the 25th-anniversary exhibit at The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum on Sept. 19th. Advance orders for “What’s Next” can be made at www.amazon.com or your local bookseller.
- Bob Bahr
- Janice Rothschild Blumberg
- Rabbi Gunther Plaut
- Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild
- What’s Next
- David Blumberg
- The Temple Atlanta
- George Gershwin
- Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
- Civil Rights
- Nobel Peace Prize
- B'nai Brith
- High Holy Days
- racial integration
- social change
- American South
- Peachtree Road
- William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum
- Woody Allen
- Isaac Stern
- Dalai Lama
- Pope John Paul II
- Yitzhak Rabin
- President Jimmy Carter
- Gerald Ford
- President Bill Clinton
- Monica Lewinsky
- Madeline Albright
- Henry Kissinger