Is weed the chosen people’s drug of choice? These artifacts suggest that it could be


NEW YORK — I’ve attended my fair share of events at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, but this was the first time a guy walking outside had a Grateful Dead patch on his jacket. . It was immediately clear that the opening night discussion and celebration of the “Am Yisrael High: The History of Jews and Cannabis” exhibit was going to be a little different.

Others congregate at the Center for Jewish History in Lower Manhattan — the Smithsonian-affiliated five-headed hydra of Jewish organizations that, in addition to YIVO, include the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the The Leo Baeck Institute and Yeshiva University Museum – included well-dressed lawyers, college-aged students and an older man wearing a skullcap in the colors of the Jamaican flag and a broad smile. (I’m not prejudging, but it didn’t feel like he was from Jamaica – Jamaica, Queens, maybe.) I also spotted Dana Beal, former Yippie and lifelong activist. cannabis date, with his long gray mustache, thick glasses, and a blazer, holding in his hand what did not look like a Marlboro.

It was a gathering of policy makers, intellectuals, as well as a few zoned and harmless stoners, all eager to see (and discuss) the menorah bong that is now under glass in YIVO’s permanent collection.

Indeed, the whole event, according to curator Eddy Portnoy, began with this heimish smoking device. In his introductory remarks, Portnoy (whose previous triumphs include the ‘Jews in Space’ exhibition) spoke of YIVO’s legendary roots in Vilnius nearly a century ago, and its vast collection of artifacts jews. “But we never had a bong,” he told the amused New York crowd, which is currently celebrating a year of cannabis decriminalization. (Some celebrate more than others.)

The exhibit, which also includes a smokable shofar and seder plate worthy of Cheech and Chong’s Jewish friends, is rooted in scholarship as much as laughter. The information displayed 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 out loud, it even sounds like “cannabis”). There is also evidence from the Cairo Geniza of everyday cannabis use long ago. (Somewhere in the huge cache of millennial texts is a shopping list that basically says “don’t forget to take hash”.)

Skipping further, there is information about the many Jewish scientists and physicians who have made discoveries related to marijuana, such as Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli chemist who first isolated the compound THC. There’s also a list of cultural figures, like poet Allen Ginsburg, jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, and public scientist/intellectual Carl Sagan, who have championed cannabis and worked, in their own way, to de-stigmatize its use.

A fragment of the Cairo Geniza (circa 1200-1300) asking for the purchase of hashish. (Universal Israelite Alliance)

Another name on the wall is Ed Rosenthal, the self-styled guru of Ganja, who was one of four panelists when opening night kicked off. Bronx-born Rosenthal, 77, is a horticulturist and botanist, has published numerous books and has led the charge of drug law reform for years. Depending on your perspective on these issues, he’s either a great example of an activist who’s served so long in the trenches that he doesn’t care what people think of him, or he let the pot get in the way. brains for so long. his style of public speaking became chaotic and combative. (Who’s to say it can’t be both?)

After Rosenthal joked that her time as a freelance editor caused more concern than working on what was, until recently, an illegal substance, Madison Margolin, a young journalist and podcast host, and Adriana Kertzer, a cannabis entrepreneur and creator of the Jew Who Tokes Instagram account, both spoke eloquently and passionately about the intersection of Judaism and getting high. The two described how working in the cannabis field is likely to “find a minyan(that’s Hebrew for enough Jews to fill a quorum with prayer) 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 “grey market” where ethnic ties exist, and linked this to Jewish history, where guilds and trading groups were often reserved for Jews. But she added there was something to be said for an “expectation to find innovation” in Jewish culture. This ties in with something Rosenthal said, about the (perhaps stereotypical, but not entirely wrong) emphasis in Jewish culture on “using your dryer– or common sense.

Clockwise from top left: Eddy Portnoy, curator of YIVO’s “Am Yisrael High”; and opening night panelists Madison Margolin; Dr. Yosef Glassman; Ed Rosenthal (photo by Christian Peacock); and Adriana Kertzer. (Courtesy of YIVO)

Rosenthal added a generational psychoanalysis: Jews have spent thousands of years being “eliminated,” so being flexible-minded is key to survival. As such, Jews are prone to scholarly pursuits, such as reading and education, but also, according to him, to getting screwed.

“Alcohol and opiates make you dysfunctional,” Rosenthal said, while cannabis, he suggested, is for intellectuals only.

Rabbi Dr. Yosef Glassman, who has taught clinical geriatrics at Tufts and Harvard Medical Schools, was also on the panel and is “an expert in Jewish cannabinoid therapy.” He is convinced that cannabis should be used by everyone as a preventative medicine and is keen to point out references in the Bible and other texts that could be code for getting high.

Altars from a Jewish place of worship dating from around 3rd century BCE in Tel Arad, containing residues of burnt cannabis and incense. (Israel Museum)

Glassman talked a bit about the pipe that belonged to the founder of the Hasidic movement – Israel ben Eliezer, also known as Baal Shem Tov. Then he turned to the Midrash, which describes the area around Mount Sinai as turning green before the smoke rose to Heaven as the Jews could hear the color and see the 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 it “part of our primitive memory.”

Mazel Tov Farms marijuana strains. (YIVO Archive)

Ed Rosenberg, who also suggested that no serious religious Jew could be anything other than an agnostic, seemed to have a less lofty attitude to the whole thing. The longtime drug war crusader has strongly denied that, in the words of another prominent Jew, everyone should be stoned. While Glassman insisted that cannabis was essential for health, and Kertzer asserted that if someone had a negative reaction to marijuana, it just couldn’t be the right “set and frame”, or the wrong strain, Rosenberg was defiant.

“If you don’t like avocados, don’t eat them!” Rosenberg chimed in and suggested that the idea that we couldn’t enjoy cannabis unless everyone enjoyed cannabis was “liberal guilt.”

All that aside, Madison Margolin, whose father Bruce Margolin is an acclaimed drug law defense attorney, spoke with a clear reverence for how her personal cannabis use in conjunction with celebrating the Shabbat helps him find spirituality.

“Judaism is the best set and setting” for a mind-altering experience, Margolin said.

While the kitschy merch sold at the post-chat event (like the “Tokin’ Jewish” T-shirt) or the loose “glatt pot” joints distributed by underground figure AJ Weberman (who said Portnoy have now entered YIVO’s collection), were certainly fun for Twitter pics, Margolin’s post is one that remained after the smoke cleared.

“Am Yisrael High: The History of Jews and Cannabis” will be on display at the Center for Jewish History/YIVO Institute for Jewish Research until December 2022.


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