Yiddishe Yippies life bared in biography

After Nixon resigned, Hoffman reflected in his autobiography, "I've created myself out of left-wing literature, sperm, licorice and a little chicken fat."

This self-proclaimed "Jewish Road Warrior," an ironic iconoclast whose revolutionary shmaltz fueled the fires of the '60s counterculture, resurfaces in the riveting biography "for the hell of it: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman" by Jonah Raskin of Sonoma State University.

This is a wild, colorful trip that examines Hoffman's pivotal role in shaping American culture in the late 20th century.

It's a deeply Jewish story, too.

"Abbie certainly had lots of chutzpah," said Raskin, who heads the communications studies department at the Rohnert Park campus, in an interview this week. "He was full of mishugas and he could also be a real kvetch. But when all was said and done, he was also a real mensch."

Raskin, who knew him well, recalls that Hoffman constantly reinvented his own identity, believing that "reality is made up," that "myths are the only news and the only thing that stays true all the time is a lie."

He likens Hoffman's life to that of Herman Broder in Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel "Enemies: A Love Story." The hero loves three women and hates himself.

In "Enemies," Broder "gets into all kind of trouble but tries to do honorable things," Raskin added. "He creates the myth of his life but he tries to be honest. I see Abbie as that kind of figure.

"Abbie would say that if anybody was going to write his story, the person to do it would be I.B. Singer," Raskin said.

Hoffman's odyssey began in 1936 in the factory town of Worcester, Mass. His parents were part of Worcester's middle-class Reform Jewish establishment. His father, John, believed deeply in the American dream and was "an operator" who moved easily among Jews and non-Jews.

Yet Raskin writes that Abbie (whose family called him by his given name, Abbot) never wanted to assimilate or forsake his identity "as the Jewish outsider, exile and wanderer."

During high school he rebelled, greasing his hair back like Sal Mineo and affecting what he called a "Jewish drugstore cowboy persona."

Wrote Hoffman, "I came into this world acutely aware of being Jewish and I'm sure I'll go out that way."

At Brandeis University in the late '50s, Hoffman played basketball, did a Jewish-waiter shtick while selling sandwiches in dorms and wore a slashed leather jacket while cultivating a worldview via Herbert Marcuse and Abraham Maslow.

"Freud, Marx, Einstein — so much of 20th-century intellectual thought was created by Jews," Raskin said. "Abbie wanted to join that tradition."

While most Jews want to fit in, Hoffman writes, a few Jews are the "wiseguys who go around saying things like, `Workers of the world unite,' or `Every guy wants to screw his mother' or `E=mc2.'"

He became a civil-rights activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee . After his first marriage, to a Jewish woman, ended in divorce, Hoffman moved to New York and into the blossoming hippie scene.

But the spaghetti-haired, American-flag-wearing, beaded, bell-bottomed co-founder of the Youth International Party — the Yippies — reached infamy in the establishment's pinnacle, Wall Street.

It was August 1967, when Hoffman staged a masterpiece of anti-materialist guerrilla theater. Alerting the news media, he led a band of protesters in throwing dollar bills from the viewing gallery onto the New York Stock Exchange floor.

In his autobiography, he called it "the TV-age version of driving the moneychangers from the temple."

Jesus reference aside, Hoffman had this to say when a suspicious security guard almost stopped the show by saying no hippies were allowed. "Who's a hippie?" Hoffman protested in mock horror. "I'm Jewish…"

The '60s high crashed in 1968, the year of assassinations; and other protesters clashed violently with thousands of heavily armed Chicago police at the Democratic Convention. Later, Hoffman and other student leaders went on trial for conspiracy to bring down the government.

What came to be called the "Chicago Seven" trial grew into a media circus thanks in part to a tie-dyed Hoffman. Asked why he had been protesting, he said he wanted to overthrow the government "by any means necessary. I'd like to see it done with bubble gum, but I'm having some doubts."

"He just had this ironic sense of self, of making fun of himself," Raskin recalled.

But after Woodstock and beyond, in the 1970s and '80s, the times changed and Hoffman was not in sync. Paroled from a bust on cocaine changes, he went underground, using the name Barry Freed.

By the time he resurfaced seven years later, the era of Reagan (whom Hoffman called "the fascist gun in the West") was in full bloom.

Hoffman was not, and his lifelong battle with manic-depression, compounded by drug abuse, overwhelmed him. Despondent over student apathy, he grew increasingly paranoid and angry over the commercialization of the youth culture he had spawned.

In 1989, at age 52, he committed a Jewish sin: suicide. But he left a very Jewish legacy.

"In some ways he does seem like the last genuine American revolutionary," Raskin said. "He wasn't connected with any organization, he never had a 9-to-5 job, but he had a calling and a vocation — to make people aware of the world in which they were living, and to do something about it."