Mark Rudd and his mother, Bertha, appear at the Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC in West Orange in April 2003.
Photo by Robert Wiener
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 own families.”
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 “wanted” poster.
“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.”