Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Abbie Hoffman, Dead at 52, Was Activist with Jewish Soul

April 14, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Abbie Hoffman, a leading activist, author and to many the very symbol of the hippie movement of the 1960s, died of unknown causes Wednesday night in his bed at home. He was 52.

Hoffman, the Yippie Party founder who was arrested 42 times, said he based his life of rebellion on his Jewish consciousness.

“Intellectual arrogance and moral indignation grow out of the ghetto history,” he wrote in “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture,” his 1980 autobiography.

“For 5,000 years, Jews always had the opportunity to rebel against authority, because for 5,000 years there was always someone trying to break their backs.”

Born Nov. 30, 1936, in Worcester, Mass., the son of a pharmaceutical salesman, Hoffman exhibited early on his penchant for the theatrical, showing off for his relatives at family meals that often included 30 people.

Of his mother, he said, “She understood and forgave a lot. She knew I was a ‘banditl.'”

Hoffman saw his destiny intertwined with Judaism, though not from a religious standpoint.

“Judaism has never been so much a religion to me as a noble history and a cluster of stereotypes. Jews, especially first-born male Jews, have to make a big choice very quickly in life whether to go for the money or to go for broke.”

Hoffman never made a lot of money, preferring to eschew the life of the yuppie in order to remain loyal to his roots as a Yippie. It conformed with his self-identity as the perennial outsider, a role he viewed as an extension of his Jewishness.

“As a kid, I went to the rabbis and said, ‘What do you think of Philip Roth or Norman Mailer or Joseph Heller, you know, those kinds of writers,’ ” Hoffman told the New Jewish Times newspaper in 1980.

“They would say, ‘Not good for the Jews. Too much self-ridicule, too much mockery.’ But I think this is the destiny for the Jews: to be rebels, to question society. And to be funny. We’re philosophers and comedians.”

It was that combination of rebel and comedian that impelled Hoffman. to become the clown prince of the protest movement. It was he who coined the phrase, “Never trust anyone over 30.”

Hoffman first gained national prominence as a member of the Chicago Seven, a group of radicals who stood trial on charges of conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention.

During the trial, Hoffman would continuously taunt the judge, Julius Hoffman (no relation), calling him a “shtunk” and a “shander fur de goyim,” an embarrassment for the Jews.

But throughout his life, it was clear his personal and social consciousness was formed by his Jewishness. “I came into this world acutely aware of being Jewish,” he wrote, “and I’m sure I’ll go out that way.”

Recommended from JTA