by Robert Wiener
NJJN Staff Writer
July 9, 2009
On a Saturday night in April of 2003, one of America's most notorious
radicals of the 1960s and '70s faced a curious audience at the Leon
and Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
He was Mark Rudd, anointed by the media as the leader of a 1968
student strike at Columbia University, then a member of the
nihilistic radical Weather Underground.
That night the key issue was not why he took part in advocating armed
struggle to overthrow the United States government, or how he felt
about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In fact, the most profound questioning came from his elderly mother,
the late Bertha Rudd, who died on June 18. "How could you do this to
me?" she asked, and the audience roared with laughter.
It was an unusual homecoming for a middle class kid from Maplewood,
whose left wing adventures began after he graduated from Columbia
High School and enrolled in Columbia University.
In his new and frank autobiography, Underground (William Morrow),
Rudd recalls spending the first part of his undergraduate years in a
blue blazer at afternoon teas hosted by deans, a "Jewish pisher from
the New Jersey suburbs, in a leather armchair, sipping sherry and
chatting with a WASP assistant dean about Plato."
For 324 pages, he spins his own version of criticism and
self-criticism into a compelling narrative. Like millions in his
generation, Rudd's prime motives were to end racism in America and
the war in Vietnam. Like thousands, that determination was firmly
rooted in an American Jewish upbringing that he weaves intermittently
through this unapologetic memoir.
"The Holocaust had been a fact of my entire childhood," he writes,
explaining why the war in Vietnam "touched a wound inside me…. The
Holocaust brought me to the knowledge that evil exists and that it is
associated with racism…. Growing up watching the civil rights
movement in this country and then learning about Vietnam, I saw evil
again…. We were responsible for these horrible atrocities."
Rudd became a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society, first
on his campus, then nationally. Along with the Student Afro-American
Society, SDS seized and occupied five buildings at Columbia to
protest its complicity with the wartime Pentagon and its real estate
expansion into Harlem.
Within about two years, Rudd confesses he "went over a cliff with a
tiny fragment of a much larger SDS."
Describing a December 1969 SDS "National War Council" he wrote of "my
own madness possibly to keep up with that of my comrades slipped
out of my mouth as I paced the floor in front of the assembled
troops: It's a wonderful feeling to hit a pig. It must be a really
wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building."
He said the words came from "my righteous anger and my grief over
what our country was doing in Vietnam and what the police were doing
here at home."
Although he was not at the scene, three of Rudd's fellow Weathermen
died in March 1970 when their bomb factory in the basement of a
Greenwich Village townhouse exploded by accident.
An FBI report said Rudd and his colleagues "have alienated a large
segment of potential and heretofore willing followers."
"I couldn't have said it better," he writes. "My friends and I chose
to scuttle America's largest radical organization…for a fantasy of
revolutionary urban-guerilla warfare."
For seven years he remained underground, and he describes in
fascinating and honest detail the fear and depression he faced as he
and his new family hid their identities.
Finally, in September of 1977, Rudd surrendered in Manhattan to face
only misdemeanor charges, a $2,000 fine, and two years' probation.
Released without bail, the partially-repentant radical returned to
Maplewood in time for a family dinner. "While we talked of hurt and
guilt and the war, the chicken soup and matzo balls appeared, plus a
steady stream of Jewish appetizers pickles, chopped liver, cole slaw."
Forty years after the rebellion he helped lead, Rudd returned to a
campus reunion and a forum of reminiscence by those who had occupied
five buildings. Perhaps the most poignant reflection he cites were
words of Michelle Patrick, a Barnard undergraduate in 1968 who had
been one of the African-American students occupying Hamilton Hall.
She said the first thing the black students did was "to clean out the
building from top to bottom. Our parents had taught us never to let
whites think of us as dirty.'"
"We weren't revolting against our parents," she said. "We were
carrying on the struggle they had been involved in their whole lives.
It appeared as if the white students were in rebellion against their
Mark Rudd seems to have ended that part of his personal rebellion.
Before she died last month, Bertha Rudd looked at her son's book, and
enjoyed illustrations that range from his bar mitzva photo to his
"We reconciled long ago," Mark wrote in an email to NJ Jewish News.
"She was a brilliant and honest woman, absolutely fearless, tough as
nails. She gave all of us unconditional love though she had a lot
to say about how we live our lives, too. I feel the world is slightly
diminished now that she's gone."