by Gary Rosenblatt
Editor and Publisher
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
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.