This Day in Jewish History / Yippie Cofounder, Colorful Symbol of the '60s, Is Born

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Jerry Rubin speaks at the University at Buffalo in March 1970.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

July 14, 1938, is the birthday of the political activist and provocateur-turned-businessman Jerry Rubin, who was one of the most colorful symbols of the 1960s antiwar and anti-establishment movement in the United States.

Jerry Rubin was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, the first of Esther and Bob Rubin’s two sons. Bob drove a bakery delivery truck and became a business agent for the Teamsters union; Esther, who had a college education, was a nurse’s aide before becoming a full-time homemaker.

Jerry graduated in 1956 from the elite, public Walnut Hills High School, where he was coeditor of the student newspaper. He attended Oberlin College for a year, before transferring to the University of Cincinnati, which he graduated from in 1961. While still a student, he worked as a sports reporter and editor at the Cincinnati Post and Times Star.

During a 10-month period around the time of his graduation, both Esther and Bob Rubin died, his mother from cancer and his father from heart failure. Jerry had to take care of his brother, Gil, then 13. Jerry wanted to take Gil to India, but when concerned relatives objected, they traveled to Israel instead. They stayed for a year and a half, Gil living on a kibbutz and Jerry studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

When they returned to the United States, in late 1963, the brothers moved to Berkeley, California, where Jerry began a master’s in sociology at the University of California. He soon dropped out in favor of politics, including a 1967 run for mayor of Berkeley, in which he earned 20 percent of the vote.

It was on New Year’s Eve of 1968 that Rubin, together with Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner, cofounded the Youth International Party, or Yippie party. When asked for their platform, they turned out a blank page, but the Yippies’ main focus was on using street theater and other provocations to fight American participation in the Vietnam War. Rubin understood early on that the best way to gain media attention was through outrageous actions, of which he became a master.

In 1965, Rubin organized a giant day-long teach-in against the war in Berkeley. Two years later he was asked to help organize a march on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which drew some 75,000 people. With the Yippies, Rubin staged an anti-war protest at the New York Stock Exchange, the climax of which consisted of dropping dollar bills from a gallery onto the trading floor, and watching as traders scrambled to grab the currency.

Rubin was called several times to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The first time, he appeared in the uniform of a Revolutionary War soldier, calling himself an heir to Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and distributing copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Rubin and six other codefendants (plus Black Panther Bobby Seale, who was tried separately) were tried and convicted of incitement to riot for his part in the anti-war demonstrations in Chicago in 1968, in which some 1,000 people were injured from police and demonstrator violence. All the convictions of the Chicago Seven were overturned on appeal, but the defendants, particularly Rubin, used the lengthy trial as a stage to publicize a variety of subversive messages.

The end of the war, and perhaps turning 30, saw the previously anti-capitalist Rubin entering business, first as a broker at a friend’s Wall Street firm, then as the organizer of huge “networking” parties and finally as an executive in a pyramid scheme company that sold a health drink. (Rubin was always looking for therapies and diets to change and improve himself.) It was in this last incarnation, when he was living in Los Angeles, that he was hit by a car on November 14, 1994, as he crossed Wilshire Boulevard against traffic. He died in the hospital two weeks later, on November 28, without ever regaining consciousness.

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