‘Am Yisrael High’
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‘Am Yisrael High’

YIVO exhibit tells the story of Jews and cannabis

Seder plate from Tokin Jews
Seder plate from Tokin Jews

The year was 1971. The date was April 26.

President Richard M. Nixon was speaking to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, and to the recording devices he had installed in the Oval Office.

“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” the president said. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists.”

Less than two months later, Mr. Nixon would declare drug abuse “public enemy number one.”

And five days shy of 51 years later, the former president — were he among the living — would be able to buy cannabis legally not 10 miles away from his Saddle River home.

So it is perhaps appropriate that that the YIVO institute is opening an exhibit next week at Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History called “Am Yisrael High: The Story Of Jews and Cannabis.”

When you talk with Eddy Portnoy, the professor of Jewish studies and author of “Bad Rabbi” who organized the exhibit, and to Yosef Glassman, a Teaneck-based gerontologist and rabbi who advocates for use of cannabis for pain relief and who will be speaking at the panel discussion launching the exhibit (see below), the psychiatrist theory does not come up.

Instead, Dr. Portnoy and Dr. Glassman pointed to the deep history cannabis has in Jewish culture, reflecting the Mediterranean origins of both cannabis use and Judaism.

Steve Marcus’ poster for the YIVO exhibit (All Photos courtesy YIVO)

There may be no direct link between the cannabis residue recently discovered on a Judean altar in southern Israel, the recommendation by the influential 20th century Belarusian Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen that cannabis makes the best wicks for Shabbat candles — to find them on Amazon, search for hemp, the term for non-psychoactive products of the cannabis plant — and the role of Jewish singer Bob Dylan in famously turning the Beatles onto marijuana in 1964.

But it certainly makes for a different sort of exhibit in an institution founded in 1925 by Yiddish-speaking European Jews to apply scientific methods of sociology to their rapidly urbanizing communities in the wake of World War I.

While cannabis “was always a topic that was of interest to me, it was not something I thought I could really do an exhibit on,” Dr. Portnoy said. “YIVO’s collections, which are voluminous, really don’t have much on cannabis.”

Then inspiration hit: “Because YIVO is still a collecting organization, I could collect materials that are relevant to the concept of Jews and cannabis and ingest them into the collection.”

YIVO doesn’t have the budget to compete with other institutions at auctions. And it doesn’t have a lot of space for artifacts. But it keeps getting contributions. “A couple of weeks ago a woman sent a great photograph from 1920 of a group sitting in a farmhouse in the Catskills,” Dr. Portnoy said. “In a more contemporary vein, when covid hit, we began collecting people’s covid stories, and masks that had Yiddish on them.”

And so Dr. Portnoy began collecting. He bought books written about cannabis by Jews, and received donations of packaging and swag from Jewishly named cannabis companies, such as Mazel Tov Farms, which bills itself as selling “California’s Premiere Kosher Cannabis.”

“A bong company that makes a beautiful glass menorah bong donated one. There’s a company called Tokin Jew that makes all kind of cannabis products from seder plates to shofars you can smoke out of.”

A 1911 Yiddish translation of “Hashish,” an 1898 novel by the Vienna author Fritz Lemmermayer

The story of Jews and cannabis goes back to at least the 8th century BCE. That’s the date archaeologists gave to stone altars in the Negev, where black material on their surfaces that had survived the centuries turned out to contain cannabis residue, according to test results reported in a 2020 paper in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

That scientific finding gives credence to the view voiced by the medieval Biblical scholar Nachmanides, who said that cannabis was an ingredient in the incense offered in the Temple in Jerusalem.

“It indicated that Jews were using cannabis in their religious ritual,” Dr. Portnoy said. While the residue was mixed with animal fat, it is unclear precisely how the cannabis was used. “It’s obviously something that got lost or disappeared.”

At least one amateur scholar has argued that ritual cannabis use by Jews did recur, a couple millennia later, in Eastern Europe. Early chasidic rebbes were reported to have entered ecstatic trances after they smoked their pipes. Author Yoseph Needelman argued in his 2012 book “Cannabis Chassidus” that those pious pipes contained cannabis. Dr. Portnoy is not convinced. “There’s no real evidence,” he said. “Cannabis is not known to be used widely among Eastern European Jews or Eastern Europeans in general. And without evidence, it’s hard to show something in an exhibit.”

Among contemporary chasidim, however, there is more evidence of use.

“In 2019 I visited the tomb of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism, in Medzhibizh in Ukraine,” Dr. Portnoy said. “There were a number of chasidim sitting outside smoking weed. It surprised some of the people we were with. It didn’t surprise me.”

In the pre-modern Middle East, however, cannabis consumption was a regular part of society. That’s why the exhibit has an amount of Sephardic material that is unusual for an organization generally focused on Ashkenazic Jewry.

Shofar bong

“I have reproductions in the exhibit of documents from the Cairo Geniza that reference hashish,” Dr. Portnoy said. “I have comments from Moroccan and Egyptian rabbis. It’s fascinating that it was part of their lives and no one really knew it.

“I spoke to an Israeli scholar of Moroccan Jewry who said it was a tradition among Moroccan Jews to sprinkle hashish into the couscous at wedding parties.”

There is one Eastern European document — a Hebrew poem called “Hashish,” written by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who then was a student in Vienna and later became a Zionist leader and mentor to later Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It includes the lines: “It draws the dream and arouses the fervor. And intoxicating elation. It calls to me ‘Come’ and I rush …”

The role of late 20th and early 21st century American and Israeli Jews in modern cannabis research is better documented. There is Raphael Mechoulam, the Hebrew University scientist who led the way in synthesizing THC, the main psychoactive ingredient of cannabis; and American scholars such as Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical school, who investigated marijuana in the 1960s and advocated for its legalization (and yes, was a psychiatrist), and Howard Becker of Northwestern University, who wrote the first sociological study of cannabis users (but was a sociologist).

And then there is the pro-marijuana counterculture of the 1960s and 70s and the more recent drives for legalization.

“Jews were heavily represented,” Dr. Portnoy said. “Because cannabis is becoming legal in many places, it’s losing this countercultural history. I want to recognize people’s activity in this realm. The people who fought and served jail time in order to promote legalization are getting forgotten.”

The most visually stunning representation of this movement comes from artist Steve Marcus, who starting in the 1990s designed colorful posters for High Times magazine and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Menorah bong

“At some point he began to take on a little more of a traditionally Jewish sensibility,” Dr. Portnoy said. “I was talking with him about the exhibit. We started talking about the Ramban” — the aforementioned Nachmanides, 1194-1270 — “and his theory that cannabis was not only part of the incense, but the element of the smoke that makes the smoke rise straight up. I suggested he make a poster of it.”

The result is the exhibit’s poster, which also highlights the oddity of gematria that the numeric value for the Hebrew word for smoke — “ashan” — is 420, which became a numeric symbol for marijuana in American culture.

For his part, Dr. Glassman does not like prescribing cannabis in smokable form. He said it is very useful for chronic pain relief when Tylenol doesn’t work, offering fewer of the risks of high doses of aspirin, Advil, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

“My preference would be in drops where you can count the milligrams you’re giving the patient, and not just saying ‘Smoke this’ and see what happens,” he said.

Besides pain relief, the gerontologist said that studies are finding an anti-anxiety effect in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients, and an anti-tremor effect in Parkinson’s. “There are animal studies that show it reverses brain aging, believe it or not, probably because of anti-inflammatory effects.”

He too is interested in the Jewish history behind cannabis use.

“It’s always been part of the milieu, particularly when used in fabrics,” he said. (In Hebrew halachic writings, going back to the Mishna, the word cannabis is used for materials that would be called “hemp” in English.) “In Israel, they bury the dead in cannabis shrouds.” He noted that for Jews, cannabis fabrics had an advantage over linen in that they were not subject to the Torah prohibition known as shatnez, which bars mixing linen and wool.

As for non-medical consumption — he doesn’t like the term “recreational” — he warns that “it doesn’t mix well with unemployment. It can sort of decrease one’s motivation to a degree.

“The only time I see it for responsible adult use is maybe once a week for Friday night, like a glass of wine.”


What: Exhibit opening and panel discussion for “Am Yisrael High: The Story Of Jews and Cannabis”

When: Thursday, May 5, 7 p.m.

Where: In person at the YIVO Institute, 15 West 16th Street, Manhattan; online, on Zoom

How much: Free, but advance registration is necessary; go to yivo.org/Cannabis-Opening. Proof of vaccination necessary to be there in person

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