A new exhibit running through December at the YIVO Institute in NYC fires up the Jewish people’s relationship with marijuana from biblical times to the ‘Old Country’ and today
NEW YORK — I’ve been to my fair share of events at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, but this was the first time where a guy milling about outside had a Grateful Dead patch on his jacket. It was immediately clear that the opening night discussion and celebration for the exhibit “Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis” was going to be a little different.
Others gathering at the Center for Jewish History in Lower Manhattan — the Smithsonian-affiliated five-headed hydra of Jewish organizations that, in addition to YIVO, includes the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, and the Yeshiva University Museum — included some sharply-dressed lawyers, college-aged students, and an older man wearing a skullcap with the colors of the Jamaican flag and a wide smile. (Not to pre-judge, but I did not get the impression that he was from Jamaica — Jamaica, Queens, maybe.) I also spied Dana Beal, former Yippie and longtime cannabis activist, with his long gray mustache, thick glasses, and a blazer, holding what did not look like a Marlboro in his hand.
This was a gathering of policy-makers, intellectuals, plus a few zonked-out, harmless stoners, all eager to see (and discuss) the menorah bong that’s now under glass in YIVO’s permanent collection.
Indeed, the whole event, according to curator Eddy Portnoy, began with this heimish smoking device. In introductory remarks, Portnoy (whose previous triumphs include the “Jews in Space” exhibit) spoke about YIVO’s storied roots in Vilnius nearly a century ago, and its expansive collection of Jewish artifacts. “But we never had a bong,” he said to the amused New York crowd, currently celebrating one year of cannabis decriminalization. (Some celebrating more than others.)
The exhibit, which also includes a smokable shofar and a seder plate befitting Cheech and Chong’s Jewish friends, is rooted in scholarship as much as chuckles. Displayed information details evidence of cannabis in ancient Israel, dating back to the First Temple. There are also details surrounding the theory that “kaneh bosem,” the anointing oil mentioned in the Book of Exodus, is believed by many to be cannabis (and if you say the words aloud, it even sounds like “cannabis”). There is also evidence from the Cairo Geniza of everyday cannabis use way back when. (Somewhere in the enormous cache of thousand-year-old texts is a shopping list that essentially says “don’t forget to pick up some hashish.”)
Skipping ahead, there’s information about the many Jewish scientists and physicians that have made marijuana-related discoveries, like Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli chemist who was first to isolate the THC compound. There’s also a tip-of-the-iceberg list of cultural figures, like poet Allen Ginsburg, jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, and scientist/public intellectual Carl Sagan, who advocated for cannabis and worked, in their own ways, to destigmatize its use.
Another name on the wall is Ed Rosenthal, the so-called Guru of Ganja, who was one of the four panelists at the opening night kickoff. Bronx-born Rosenthal, age 77, is a horticulturist and botanist, has published many books, and has been leading the charge for drug law reform for years. Depending on your point of view on these matters, he is either a terrific example of an activist who has served so long in the trenches he doesn’t give a hoot what people think of him, or he’s let pot scramble his brains for so long his public speaking style has become chaotic and combative. (Who’s to say it can’t be both?)
After Rosenthal joked about how his time as an independent publisher caused more worry than working on what was, until recently, an illegal substance, Madison Margolin, a young journalist and podcast host, and Adriana Kertzer, a lawyer in the cannabis field and creator of the Jew Who Tokes Instagram account, both spoke eloquently and passionately about the intersection of Judaism and getting high. Both described how working in the cannabis field one is likely to “find a minyan” (that’s Hebrew for enough Jewish people to fill a prayer quorum) wherever you go. The business of selling cannabis, or writing about it, or rolling up one’s legal sleeves, is currently very Jewish, they shared.
Kertzer explained how it has always been easier to do business in a “gray market” where ethnic ties exist, and related this back to Jewish history, where guilds and trade groups were often restricted to Jews. But she added that there is something to be said about an “expectation to find innovation” in Jewish culture. This dovetails with something Rosenthal said, about the (perhaps stereotypical, but not wholly untrue) emphasis in Jewish culture about “using your sechel” — or common sense.
Rosenthal added some generational psychoanalysis: Jews have spent thousands of years being “culled,” so being limber of mind is key to survival. As such, Jews are prone to scholarly pursuits, like reading and education, but also, in his view, getting stoned.
“Alcohol and opiates make you dysfunctional,” Rosenthal said, while cannabis, he suggested, is for intellectuals.
Also on the panel was Rabbi Dr. Yosef Glassman, who has taught clinical geriatrics at both Tufts and Harvard Medical Schools, and is “a specialist in Jewish cannabinoid therapeutics.” He is convinced that cannabis should be used by all as preventive medicine, and is eager to point out references in the Bible and other texts that could be code for getting high.
Glassman dished a little on the pipe that belonged to the founder of the Hasidic movement — Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov. Then he turned to the Midrash, which describes the area around Mt. Sinai as turning green before smoke went up to Heaven while the Jews could hear color and see sound. He also spoke enthusiastically of an unknown 12th spice in the incense burned in ancient Jerusalem.
“It’s in the Torah!” Glassman said with a smile, calling this “part of our primal memory.”
Ed Rosenberg, who also suggested that no serious religious Jew could be anything but agnostic, seemed to have a less lofty attitude toward all this. The longtime crusader against the War on Drugs firmly denied that, in the words of another notable Jew, everybody must get stoned. While Glassman urged that cannabis was essential for health, and Kertzer argued that if someone had a negative reaction to marijuana, it simply must not have been the right “set and setting,” or the wrong strain, Rosenberg was defiant.
“If you don’t like avocados, don’t eat them!” Rosenberg interjected, and suggested that the notion that one couldn’t enjoy cannabis unless everyone enjoyed cannabis was “liberal guilt.”
All that aside, Madison Margolin, whose father Bruce Margolin is a noted criminal defense attorney specializing in drug law, spoke with a clear reverence for how her personal use of cannabis in conjunction with celebrating Shabbat helps her find spirituality.
“Judaism is the best set and setting” to have a mind-altering experience, Margolin said.
While the kitschy merch sold at the post-discussion event (like the “Tokin’ Jew” t-shirt) or the loose joints of “glatt pot” handed out by underground figure A.J. Weberman (which Portnoy says have now entered YIVO’s collection), were certainly fun for Twitter pics, Margolin’s message is the one that stayed after the smoke had cleared.
“Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis” will be on display at the Center for Jewish History/YIVO Institute for Jewish Research through December 2022.