Thursday, March 28, 2013

Q&A with Janice Rothschild Blumberg

Janice Rothschild Blumberg
Janice Rothschild Blumberg is a native of Atlanta, Ga., who has written about the history of Jews in the South. Her most recent book is Prophet in a Time of Priests: Rabbi "Alphabet" Browne, 1845-1929, which recounts the life of her great-grandfather.

Q: How much did you know about your great-grandfather as you were growing up, and what surprised you the most as you researched your book about him?

A: I knew him slightly (I was 5 years old when he died). My one remembered incident with him is in my book, along with a picture of the two of us together taken that day. From my great-grandmother I heard much about his prominence as an orator, and from my grandmother---their daughter---I gained a jaundiced view of his sometimes embarrassing activism plus fondly remembered social encounters such as being seated with the celebrities at Grant’s funeral (because her father was one of the honorary pall bearers) and visiting the next generation of Grants in Vienna. 

My mother, Browne’s only grandchild, had only the most glowing of comments, focusing on his delightful sense of humor. Most surprising was to learn that all of it was true. 

And much more! The most surprising single revelation was that he had been an ardent Zionist and personal friend of Theodor Herzl. My parents and I came from strongly Classical Reform Jewish backgrounds, so until I married Rabbi Jacob Rothschild in 1946 and became Jewishly educated, everything I ever heard about Zionism was negative. 

Consequently, when I discovered a newspaper clipping about our ancestor’s friendship with Herzl in a scrapbook of memorabilia that my mother had assembled, I wondered why she had not told us about it. It was too late to ask her, but not too late to email the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem with a query about any possible correspondence between my ancestor and Herzl. 

The answer came in a stack of hitherto unpublished letters that, once translated from 19th century German, yielded a treasure trove of history, sharp wit and stinging insights to the challenges that Herzl faced in America.

Q: How long did it take you to research and write the book?
A: The short answer is 12 years, but that doesn’t tell the story.  In the 1950s, I saw in the partial galley of an unpublished book, a brief that Browne presented to New York Governor David Hill in 1888 appealing for the life of a Jewish immigrant falsely accused of murdering his wife. I thought it would make a great play or mystery novel, which I determined to write some day. 

Some day came 40 years later. Meanwhile I became interested in American Jewish history. My good friends historians Gary Zola and Jonathan Sarna, aware that there was much about Browne waiting to be unmined, convinced me that I would do him and Jewish history a disservice by trivializing his story as fiction. I took their advice and researched. There’s more to be found, and I hope that my book will inspire future historians to look for it.      

Q: Why did you use the title Prophet in a Time of Priests?

A: It refers to the role of prophets in ancient times, and their distinction from priests. Priests were in charge of ritual, and maintained their high position at the pleasure of the king. Prophets were men and women whose inner compass enabled them to predict dire consequences resulting from continued immorality, and to plead for change. They “told it like it was” regardless of how unpopular that might be, and frequently had to take flight after doing so. 

My husband often reminded me of this during our struggle for civil rights in Atlanta. Fortunately he did not have to leave, even after our Temple was bombed in 1958, but otherwise the parallel with Browne caused me to think of both men as modern day prophets. In Browne’s day “successful” rabbis chose not to disturb the status quo.     

Q: You have focused much of your research over the years on the history of Jews in the American South. How was their experience different from that of Jews in other parts of the United States?

A:  That is an ongoing debate among historians. I would argue that basic differences of experience exist not between the South and elsewhere, but between the areas of centralized Jewish immigration (New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, etc.) and everywhere else. The Jewish South consists of many different historical settings and therefore even the broadest generalization confuses more than it informs. 

Furthermore, until the late 19th century Jews were welcomed as part of the social, cultural and civic mainstream of all but the very largest cities throughout the country. Although until recently there were never large concentrations of Jews in the South, Jewish communities began with the earliest European settlements in colonial times. 

In the early 19th century, the city with America’s largest Jewish population was---believe it or not---Charleston, S.C.! 

Growing up in Atlanta for me was similar to that of contemporaries growing up in any other city of similar size. Differences existed within the city due to neighborhood and synagogue affiliation. As Reform Jews living near Emory University, my friends and I freely socialized with and had close friends who were Christian, and never heard anti-Semitic epithets hurled at us. We now know that this was not true for the majority of our Jewish contemporaries in Atlanta or elsewhere. 

After World War II, Jewish communities desegregated themselves from the old divisions based on European background. That condition may have existed longer in the South than elsewhere, but I doubt it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My memoir.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Janice Rothschild Blumberg will be participating in the Temple Sinai Women of Reform Judaism's Authors Roundtable on April 27 in Washington, D.C. For information on the event, please see this link.

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