Forty years ago this spring, Columbia University was rocked by student riots, and Yeshiva University, where I was a senior, was the scene of a major water fight in the dorm and impromptu volleyball game on the streets of Midtown. And therein lies a tale.
Keep in mind that the spring of 1968 was one of the most tumultuous times in modern American history. The Vietnam War was raging, April brought the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and subsequent riots across the country, and only two months later, Sen. Bobby Kennedy was murdered moments after he won the California primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.
One sensed that the violent events taking place, less than five years after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination,
were changing the course of American history, putting the nation on a downward spiral.
The student riots at Columbia that spring ostensibly were in protest of a university housing plan that would displace poor residents in the Morningside Heights neighborhood. But they were more about anger over Vietnam, and the assertion of an emerging sex, drugs and rock-and-roll attitude among young people deeply suspicious of the Establishment.
Caught up in the atmosphere of the times, a group of Yeshiva seniors took the subway down to Columbia on several warm afternoons to participate vicariously in the rebellious mood by watching as students screamed at the cops, called them “pigs” and tried to provoke a violent response.
Despite the fewer than 60 blocks that separated them, the Columbia and YU campuses were really light years apart. One was at the cutting edge of revolution; one was framed by Talmudic study steeped in disputes of centuries past.
So the edginess of the times, compounded by final exams, played out in a major water fight in the main dorm one spring night at YU, with scores of students in their swim trunks heaving large cans of water on each other, and sometimes out the window onto Amsterdam Avenue.
Soon, the fire department arrived, with firemen wading through the puddles in the dorm halls, axes at the ready, responding to calls from neighbors. Surveying the scene, though, they were good-natured about the mess and didn’t stay long.
Hours later, well after midnight, two student activists from Columbia’s SDS chapter appeared at my dorm room. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) was the radical group behind the Columbia protests, and it seems they had received notice that, in their memorable words to my roommate and me, “Yeshiva was being liberated.”
They said they were there to help us plan a takeover of the president’s office.
Too embarrassed to explain that the commotion at YU was a water fight, not a student protest — and that any prospective rebellion at YU would have been quelled by a rabbinic scholar announcing that such acts were halachically not permissible, or just not right — we listened as they urged us to secure maps of the administrative buildings and fortify ourselves for a long stay.
We nodded, scribbled notes, thanked them for their advice, and finally were rid of them, raising our fists to meet theirs in solidarity.
Then we had a good laugh before going back to sleep in preparation for another day of Talmud study and exams.
A few nights later, a few of us seniors decided it would be a great idea to ease the tension of finals by challenging the girls of our sister school, Stern College for Women, to an evening game of volleyball. This presented two immediate challenges: first, the men’s and women’s campuses were separated by more than 150 city blocks, with the men’s campus in Washington Heights and the women’s on the East Side, in Midtown. And second, neither school had a real sports facility at the time.
Undaunted, though, we scheduled and publicized the event at both campuses, and on the chosen night, about a dozen of us enthusiastic fellows trekked down to the Stern dorm on East 34th Street by subway with our gear, consisting of one scuffed-up volleyball.
It was a lovely spring evening and within a few minutes of our arrival, dozens of women came pouring out of their dorm (including, I found out much later, my future wife, who I had not yet met), bringing a few white bed sheets, which we tied together as a makeshift volleyball net.
Picture the scene, if you will, of this improvised game playing itself out on a busy sidewalk between Park and Lexington avenues, with scores of college students joyfully batting a ball back and forth over some white sheets in the shadow of the Empire State Building.
It was a magical moment, too good to last. And sure enough it didn’t, ending in near-disaster.
Not 10 minutes into the game, the Stern dorm mother (yes, dorm mother), true to form, called the police. And moments later, a frightening display of NYPD power was upon us.
It turns out that the police had been told that the Yippies, an anti-war activist group led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were rumored to be planning one of their impromptu protests in the city that night. The Yippies were well known for carrying out sometimes comical acts of rebellion, most famously having protestors throw fistfuls of dollars from the gallery onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. So when the cops heard of commotion on 34th Street, they responded immediately, and full throttle.
We heard loud sirens, and the next thing we knew we were facing three or four police cars and two paddy wagons that had roared right up onto the curb. Cops in riot gear poured out, some with gas masks, billy clubs in hand. It was truly scary.
After some tense moments of confusion, we convinced them that we were not staging a demonstration but rather the Yeshiva version of college high jinks. They were not amused, reminding us that we were obstructing a public walkway.
But they left soon after, and we hung around on the street, talking into the night, marveling at the full moon, the cool breeze and the infinite wonders of New York City in the spring of ‘68.