BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR//
“Alphabet” Browne is quite possibly the most famous rabbi you’ve never heard of. What makes this all the more interesting is that his life and work are inextricably linked with the early years of Atlanta’s Jewish community.
The story of this Renaissance man was buried in a pile of papers hidden underneath a bed for years, until Browne’s great-granddaughter, Janice Rothschild Blumberg, decided his story needed telling. That tale, “Prophet in a Time of Priests: Rabbi ‘Alphabet’ Browne” (Apprentice House), will be the featured topic early next month at the Atlanta History Center.
Blumberg readily admits she’s not a trained historian. The project took her a dozen years of research and sifting through her great-grandfather’s papers to uncover the full and compelling story.
It turned out to be one heck of a yarn! Here’s a short version:
Edward Benjamin Morris Browne arrived in the United States shortly after the Civil War ended, and over the next 50 years or so, he managed to grab headlines as a rabbi, journalist, attorney and political activist. He was a restless and driven spirit in search of justice, freedom and the American Dream.
To that end, he helped the needy and homeless and rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous; he irritated and annoyed politicians and business leaders and defended the rights of those in trouble. His accomplishments are varied, breathtaking and legendary.
Rabbi Browne was widely known as an authority on the Talmud, as well as the life of Jesus. What’s more, while serving congregations in numerous cities (among them New York and Atlanta) he published the South’s first Jewish-interest newspaper.
He delivered opening prayers in both houses of Congress, served as an honorary pallbearer for Ulysses S. Grant and helped Benjamin Harrison win the presidency. He was honored by Sultan Abdul Hamid of the Ottoman Empire and discussed Europe’s “Jewish problem” with Pope Leo XIII.
He also defended an elderly immigrant wrongfully convicted of murder, and that’s actually the little story that captured the imagination of Blumberg and set her on a long and winding path to document the deeds and accomplishments of her great-grandfather.
“I was really into theater at the time,” Blumberg said during a recent interview, “and the murder story sounded like it would make a great play.”
It was an idea that never really took off and it would take another four decades before she got around to seriously investigating the life of Browne. Fortunately, she had a great place to start.
“My mother was holding his papers, and after she died, they were passed on to me,” Blumberg said.
The papers ended up stored away underneath a bed in a guestroom of Blumberg’s house, gathering dust and, somewhat like the rabbi’s life, becoming a fading memory. Meanwhile, Blumberg was staying busy – very busy.
In fact, it would seem she was carrying around many of the same remarkable traits that characterized the life of her great-grandfather: Like him, she was an author and speaker, focusing on American Jewish history; she held leadership positions in numerous organizations, including president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society; and she lectured at universities, synagogues, museums and academic conferences.
It’s also worth noting that Blumberg is the widow of two iconic and outspoken Jewish leaders: Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta, spiritual leader of The Temple; and David Blumberg of Knoxville, Tenn., a civic leader and international president of B’nai B’rith in the 1970s.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that she recalled the papers in her guestroom and decided the time had come to flesh out Browne’s story. At times, it was a difficult journey. The tedious demands of research can be onerous.
Fortunately, Blumberg has many academics and writers among her friends, including Jonathan Sarna, regarded as one of the most prominent historians of American Judaism.
“He encouraged me and told me that when I got stuck just to push through and keep writing,” Blumberg said.
That’s exactly what she did – for years. Now, history buffs are lucky enough to have an expansive tome on the life and times of “Alphabet” Browne.
The rabbi’s nickname, by the way, references the list of academic degrees that were often detailed along with his name. Like his life, the degrees included an impressive number of accomplishments.
For the last year, Blumberg has stayed busy speaking about her work, detailing the fascinating stories that are part of Browne’s life and legacy. That’s what she’ll be doing early next month at the Atlanta History Center, and then, she’ll be kicking off Jewish History Month in May with a lecture at the Library of Congress.
I’m certain if “Alphabet” Browne was still around, he’d be kvelling!
Editor’s note: Janice Rothschild Blumberg will be speaking on her book, “Prophet in a Time of Priests: Rabbi ‘Alphabet’ Browne,” at the Atlanta History Center on March 3 at 2 p.m. For additional information, contact the history center at (404) 814-4000.