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. And therein lies a tale.
Keep in mind that the spring of 1968 was one of the most tumultuous times in modern American history, with the Vietnam war raging, the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and subsequent riots across the country, and only two months later, the murder of Sen. Bobby Kennedy 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 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 Morning Side 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 several warm afternoons to participate vicariously in the rebellious mood by watching the students screaming at the cops, calling them “pigs” and trying to provoke a violent response.
Despite the less 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 word 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 before another day of Talmud study and exams.