The People of the Bong: “Jews and Cannabis” at YIVO

Gordon Haber

The art and culture world often defaults to self-seriousness. Think of the pristine white walls of every gallery you’ve ever been to, or the solemn experts opinionating as if they were Moses delivering the tablets. It can be the same for Jewish arts and culture, even though we place such a high value on irony and humor.
 
Thus it was already a relief to notice, on a pleasant weeknight in New York City, the celebratory atmosphere outside the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The mood was closer perhaps to a Phish show than an elevating cultural event, with a mix of ages and a little more tie-dye than usual. Here and there a sweet, smoky tang wafted into the air above 17th Street.
 
In the auditorium, the good feeling continued, and there were few empty seats. A man I had never seen before introduced me to someone as his brother. Some confusion was understandable, I suppose, given that we were all masked, and that tonight was the opening of Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis, YIVO’s new exhibition on the long and rich relationship—religious, recreational, and entrepreneurial—between the plant and the Jewish people. (On view May-December 2022 at YIVO Institute for Jewish History in the Center for Jewish History.)
 
The exhibition was curated by Eddy Portnoy, a Reboot faculty member and current Academic Advisor and Exhibitions Curator for YIVO. Portnoy had assembled a lively panel of experts: horticulturalist and activist Ed Rosenthal, whom High Times Magazine dubbed “the guru of ganja”; cannabis lawyer Adriana Kertzer; physician and rabbi Dr.Yosef Glassman; and journalist Madison Margolin.
 
Unsurprisingly, the panel members were enthusiastic about marijuana. But the discussion went deeper than the joys of toking. The ultimate question was why there are such strong associations between Jewish culture and cannabis culture. As Madison Margolin put it, “I go to a cannabis conference and there would be a minyan.”
 
Ed Rosenthal said that it’s related the intellectual bent of the Jewish people: “Jews value intellectual culture. Other drugs, alcohol, the opiates, make you dysfunctional.” Cannabis and psychedelics, on the other hand, lead to creativity, “and that’s what Jews love about cannabis. It’s an intellectual drug.”
 
Maybe so, but I found other avenues of speculation more convincing. Portnoy mentioned that Jews were regularly shut out of various occupations: “As a result, they had to scramble financially, to figure out ways to make money not necessarily on the level, like with bootlegging.” The gray areas are also areas of opportunity: many Jews are early entrepreneurs in the burgeoning marijuana industry, just as they were in sound recording, film, and comics.
 
Kertzer added that it’s “easier to do business in gray markets where ethnic ties exist.” The social contract between Jews was useful when a market was legally ambiguous, or blatantly against the law, and there wasn’t access to the protection of a legal contract.

Exhibit poster by Steve Marcus (YIVO Archives)

Another link is spirituality. Dr Glassman said, “We’re involved in this because it’s part of our primal memory.” He discussed the numerous references to cannabis in Jewish texts, and recounted his own spiritual epiphany while under the influence, when he realized that that “there must be an infinite unseeable unity.”
 
Kertzer suggested that the Haskalah “stripped Judaism of its mysticism—to fit in, to belong, to not be so scary.” Thus, for many Jews synagogue is “a drag” and it can be hard to “get into the groove of Shabbat.” For these reasons, Jews look elsewhere for spirituality. Marijuana, however, can be a way of making Jewish ritual more fun, and in doing so, “help us rediscover knowledge in our own traditions. With psychedelics, every day is a synagogue.” In other words, drugs can be a path to Jewish engagement—although it may be a while until Jewish nonprofits follow through on this idea.
 
Overall, there was a certain joy in listening to people discuss this subject without fear of censure or the NYPD. (You can watch the panel discussion in full here.) But the same would not be true for other communities. More than one panel member noted how minority communities were devastated by the War and Drugs, in particular due to New York State’s Rockefeller Laws, which, among other draconian punishments, meted out extended sentences for possessing relatively small amounts of marijuana. As Portnoy pointed out, the exhibition would look a lot different if it were about Blacks and cannabis or Latinos.
 
And what of the exhibition? One part takes a didactic approach, with one wall full of text about the connections between Jews and cannabis both ancient and modern. It’s informative, but the objects are the fun stuff. For instance, there is a vintage Phillies Blunt Cigar box. Nobody knows who first hollowed out a cheap cigar and filled it with bud, but we do know that the company was started by three Jewish brothers in 1910.
 
As you might imagine, some Jewish cannabis enthusiasts had a lot of fun with religious items, like the shofar pipe, and the hanukkiah bong, and the marijuana-themed seder plate (guess what it suggests for the greens?).
 
Am Yisrael High touches upon serious topics—displacement, spirituality, entrepreneurship, crime, anxiety. As Portnoy told me in an earlier conversation, the exhibition also demonstrates that “cannabis in a liminal place, moving from illegal drug and traditional intoxicant to useful medication. Lots of people are still on the fence.”
 
This ambiguity makes for interesting viewing. What sets the exhibition apart, though, is that at the same time it embraces a sense of Jewish playfulness, which is rare in a museum setting. Despite the masks, I got the sense that a lot of people were smiling, and not necessarily because they were high.

Cover of 1911 Yiddish translation of Hashish. (YIVO Library)

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