Rabbi 'Alphabet' Browne stirs the fire


A doctor who never practiced medicine, a rabbi who preached to non-Jews and a lawyer who represented wrongfully convicted down-and-outers, Rabbi Edward "Alphabet" Browne was a lightning rod for controversy during his lifetime.

This weekend, his great-granddaughter will visit the Berkshires to talk about his life. Janice Rothschild Blumberg of Atlanta, Ga., past president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, will speak at a talk and lunch on Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield, and read from her book on Browne's life on Monday evening at The Bookstore in Lenox.

"He was a crusading rabbi," Blumberg said. "The Jewish people were not ready for him. He was candid and open about other religions."

Browne came to America at a time of intellectual flowering. America in the in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, in the difficult Reconstruction years, went through a period of creative ferment and spiritual recognition. Browne came to be part of it.

He worked his way through Rabbinic, law and medical school and to the head of a conservative Manhattan congregation and advocated for some of the poorest and roughest of the city's fast-growing population -- showing a liberal conscience sometimes at odds with his Orthodox community.

Unlike most family historians, who have very few published resources on which to root their research and decorate with family tales, Browne's greatgranddaughter found her maternal ancestor's copious collection of handwritten notes, newspaper clippings, legal briefs and even a 1888 published book he wrote about himself more than sufficient material.

In fact, she found it daunting.

"Took me 12 years, concentrating on this and nothing else," said Rosthchild, who discovered boxes and boxes of Browne's literary leavings in the attic of her grandparents' Columbus, Ga. house, just as it was being sold. She stored the boxes.

That was in the 1950s.

"I kept saying ‘I'm going to do this -- I'm going to do this,' " said Blumberg, age 89. She had two marriages, raised a daughter, did civic work and wrote freelance stories for the Atlanta Journal Constitution before she opened the boxes.

A memory of sitting on the Rabbi's knee when she was three years old stayed with her, and she found a photo of herself with him.

Browne was nicknamed "Alphabet" for all the letters of degrees that followed his name, a law degree from the University of Wisconsin and a medical degree from the University of Cincinnati.

Born Edward Benjamin Morris Browne in 1845 in what is now present day Presov, Slovakia, but was Hungary at the time, he studied Hebrew and received his rabbinical degrees in Europe. He immigrated in 1865 to the United States, and from then on he became a much written-about subject until he died in 1925.

He studied with Rabbi Isaac M. Wise at Hebrew Union College until 1878, when a disagreement led to a parting of the ways.

Browne went on to build a national reputation as an orator, preaching mainly to non-Jewish gatherings. His lectures were covered in newspapers, and he was known for tossing out verbal firecrackers like "Christ's betrayal was made by Peter not, Judas," in a speech on Feb. 26, 1909, according to Street's Pandex of News.

While many Jewish congregations of the time wanted their sermons preached in German -- because, before World War I, many German jews immigrated to the United States -- Rabbi Browne preached in English. He taught the Talmud to Protestant groups and edited edited a journal, ‘Jews of the South.'

He became involved in Republican Party politics -- then the more liberal party -- became friends with retired U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and was noted in newspapers as having been one of Grant's pallbearers. In fact, Browne gave the opening prayer to two sessions of Congress, as noted in the Congressional Record, to the House in 1917 and the Senate in 1918.

As a lawyer, he maneuvered to save the lives of gangsters and gain the freedom of inmates of Dannemora State Prison, also known as Sing Sing, in Ossining, N.Y.

When a man Browne had defended, and seen acquitted, later confessed to the murder, Browne's religious community rebelled. His conservative congregation at the synagogue Gates of Heaven, 115 East 86th St., in Manhattan, outsted him. He refused to go, and a judge ordered him evicted.

He resumed his nomadic life, serving congregations in Toledo, Chicago and Columbus, Ga., where he eventually settled down with his daughter's family near the end of his life, and where he bounced his greatgranddaughter on his knee.

"I remember that day," Blumberg said. "He was playing a game with me. I would jump from a ledge on the side of the steps on our front porch. He would catch me."

"After several catches, he decided not to catch me. I fell on the ground, not hurt, and he picked me up."

What did he say?

"Never trust a Hungarian, even if he's your great grandfather."

If you go ...

What: Janice Rothschild Blumberg discusses her new book on Rabbi ‘Alphabet' Browne.

In addition to ‘Prophet in a Time of Priests, Rabbi Alphabet Browne 1845-1929,' Janice Rothschild Blumberg's books include ‘One Voice: Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild and the Troubled South' (1984) and ‘As But a Day, The First Hundred Years (1967, rev. 1987).' She has written for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Sunday Magazine and is a regular columnist for The Jewish Georgian.

When: luncheon and lecture, Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Where: Temple Anshe Amunim,
26 Broad St., Pittsfield

Information: (413)442-5910, ansheamunim.org

Admission: $15

When: Reading from ‘Prophet in a Time of Priests,' Monday, 5 p.m.

Where: The Bookstore
11 Housatonic St., Lenox

Admission: Free

Information: (413) 637-3390 bookstoreinlenox.org


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