As Janice Rothschild Blumberg saw it, Jan. 6, 2021, started out as a very fine day.
It was the day after the runoff election and, as the votes were counted, Blumberg was rooting for the two Georgia Democrats running for U.S. Senate.
By early that afternoon, Raphael Warnock had claimed election as the first Black U.S. senator from Georgia and Jon Ossoff was on his way to becoming the state’s first Jewish member of the U.S. Senate. Taken together, their election meant the Republicans would lose their senate majority and Democrats would control the national government.
“I am ecstatically happy,” Blumberg said during a phone chat early that afternoon. “It couldn’t be better. It’s wonderful.”
Then, suddenly, the tenor of things seemed to change. As Blumberg and I talked, texts started to appear on my phone saying something shocking was happening in Washington.
I hung up and watched TV news broadcasts fill with pictures of the takeover of the U.S. Capitol by an armed and angry mob. The mob called for the recent elections to be thrown out, for White supremacy to rise again, and for resistance to the U.S. government. Some in the group carried Confederate Battle Flags through the halls of the Capitol.
After a while, I called Blumberg back to get her take on what was happening. She was horrified. “Unbelievable,” she said. Yet she said she had not abandoned hope. It was still a good day.
“Look at what happened last night,” she said. “Look at what happened in Georgia. There’s still hope out there.”
She’s seen political upheavals before and weathered her share of them. During her long and active life — she turns 97 this month — she has been a writer and public speaker and has led and worked with Jewish charities and organizations. Her first husband, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, was a public critic of segregation and supporter of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and was spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta when it was bombed in 1958. The Rothschilds were friends of Atlanta’s Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Blumberg, who now lives in Buckhead, grew up in Druid Hills. “Atlanta was very different then, very different,” she said. “We were segregated Jewishly as well as we were racially.”
She first met Rabbi Rothschild at the Standard Club, then a social club for the Jewish community that was located on Ponce de Leon Avenue. “Atlanta, and particularly the Jewish community, and particularly the Reformed Jewish community, was mostly the same people … Everybody knew everybody,” she said.
She remembers the community was abuzz at the time about the new, young rabbi. “I saw him on a tennis court,” she said. “Someone said, ‘That’s the new rabbi. Want to meet him?’ He was being feted by every family with a young daughter… I think we knew [we belonged together] on our second date.”
They told their family he proposed during a University of Georgia football game as they shared a poncho in a rainstorm, she said. Actually, she said, he had brought up the subject the night before by giving her a cartoon showing a man on bended knee who was saying, “It’s simple. You just ask.” They told her mother that night and the rest of the family the next day, after the game.
She said she first met Martin Luther King through her mother. Her mother was hosting a European journalist who wanted to meet civil rights activists in Atlanta, so a dinner was arranged at Paschal’s, a well-known restaurant. King dropped by to chat. A few months later, Blumberg recalled, King was arrested during a protest and Blumberg called Coretta to offer her sympathy.
They hit it off. “As standoffish as she seemed to be with the public, somehow she talked to me like a sister,” Blumberg said. “I felt very big-sisterly to her.”
They had much in common. Both had young children and were married to prominent men who took public positions that made them enemies who regularly threatened to do them harm. Blumberg said there were threats against her, too.
The threats against Rabbi Rothschild turned into real-life harm on Oct. 12, 1958, when The Temple was bombed. Dynamite severely damaged the building, but no one was killed. The community rallied around the congregation and public figures from the mayor of Atlanta to the president of the United States quickly condemned the bombing. “A Republican president [spoke out against the bombing] on the eve of mid-term elections,” she said. “He answered from his heart, and what he did, he did from the heart. He sent in the FBI.”
Yet no one ever was convicted for the bombing. And Blumberg believes echoes of those times continue today. Some politicians still offer support to right-wing extremists, including those who help stir up the mob that took over the Capitol last month. She thinks of Joseph McCarthy and others. “We’re living through some parallels to that time,” she said.
I called Blumberg again on Inauguration Day. She’d watched on TV as the country had installed a new president. Georgia was being represented in Congress by two new senators. Was she hopeful? “You bet I am, I certainly am,” she said. “[There’s] a decent, kind person in there and I think he’s very smart and … he’s got really knowledgeable people around him giving advice.”
It looked like things were changing. Look at what happened in Georgia.