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May 5, 2022 1:51 pm

‘Am Yisrael High’: The Hidden History of Jews and Cannabis

avatar by Ben Cohen


A display panel at YIVO’s “Am Yisrael High” exhibition shows an artist’s impression of a pillar of smoke in the shape of the number 420 — code for cannabis use — emerging from the Temple in Jerusalem. Photo: The Algemeiner.

More than twenty years ago, I had the occasion to interview the singer Rita Marley, widow of reggae luminary Bob Marley, for BBC television. We conversed about many subjects, but what has always stayed with me was her reasoning as to why the cannabis prohibition laws that prevailed across the globe at that time were deeply unfair and unjust. “It was one of the herbs that was in the Garden of Eden,” Rita told me, with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice.

This notion of cannabis as a sacrament with biblical sanction is central to Marley’s Rastafarian faith, but it surfaces in other religions and cultures too — including Judaism. On Thursday night, a new exhibition exploring the long-established, under-examined relationship between Jews and cannabis opens at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, displaying objects as varied as a Cairo Geniza fragment containing references to hashish that dates from the 13th century, along with a menorah in the shape of a bong that dates from this one.

So, was cannabis available in the Garden of Eden, I asked Eddy Portnoy, YIVO’s curator, as he walked me around the exhibits on Wednesday afternoon? “That’s impossible to know,” Portnoy laughed. Certainly, there are no references in the Book of Genesis to cannabis, but that is not the case with the Torah as a whole, he pointed out.

Portnoy directed me to a passage in the Book of Exodus in which God instructs Moses on the preparation of a sacred oil to anoint the Israelite priesthood: “Next take choice spices: five hundred weight of solidified myrrh, half as much — two hundred and fifty — of fragrant cinnamon, two hundred and fifty of aromatic cane.”

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The key term in that verse is “kaneh bosem” — “aromatic cane” — which may be the origin of the English word “cannabis.” Some translations of the Torah render “kaneh bosem” (“kaneh busma” in Aramaic) as calamus, a plant that also contains psychoactive properties, but according to Portnoy, it is more properly understood as cannabis. “Cannabis was always taboo, so the translators didn’t want to translate it like that,” he said. The term was referenced by the leading medieval Rabbi Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) in his quest to categorize all of the plants that are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. “The Rambam said that ‘kaneh bosem’ was a type of plant that’s known to come from India and is used in medicine,” Portnoy explained. “Of course, India has been using cannabis for ritual purposes for thousands of years.”

Portnoy has discovered further evidence of the presence of cannabis among the ancient Israelites, contending that it was an element in the “ketoret” — the mix of spices and balms offered as incense at the Temple in Jerusalem. There is also a curious connection involving the Hebrew word for smoke (“ashan“), which is represented by the number 420 in the gematria, a Jewish form of numerology that substitutes the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the Bible with corresponding numerals. In the secular world of cannabis consumption, “420” is code for smoking a joint and also a call sign for the liberalization of cannabis laws, with cannabis advocates annually designating April 20 (4/20) as a day of protest.

The libertine counterculture that emerged during the 1960s, in which cannabis played a central role, is another major focus of the wittily-titled “Am Yisrael High” exhibit. The visibility of Jews in the movement was such that an entire wall is devoted to a comment made by former President Richard Nixon to H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff, in May 1971. “You know, it’s a funny thing,” Nixon said. “Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. 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.”

Several of Nixon’s “bastards” are featured in the YIVO exhibit, among them renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, who famously declared that the illegality of cannabis was “an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.” The exhibit also highlights the contribution of both Israeli scientists and the Jewish communities of the Islamic world to cannabis cultivation and use. Indeed, Jews in North Africa were known to sprinkle grains of hashish — the concentrated resin made from the cannabis flower — on top of their couscous dishes “to get the party started,” Portnoy said, as we took our conversation to a bench in nearby Union Square, where the heady scent of someone else’s cannabis joint wafted in our direction.

Arguably the most brazen Jewish homage to cannabis featured in the exhibition is a remarkable poem by Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement, about his own experiences with the intoxicant. “Untouched a silver fire burns / And into the arms of a formless nymph / A dream of naked shame pulls / Me to the cradle of torment,” Jabotinsky wrote. “And, in the intoxicating madness / Bids me: ‘Come’ — and I make haste.”

Portnoy said that the idea for the exhibition came to him two years ago, when he saw an advertisement for the menorah-shaped bong. “YIVO has been collecting Jewish artifacts for more than 100 years,” he said. The bong was “an excellent example of the crossover between Jewish culture and cannabis culture.” After securing a donation of the bong from the company that manufactured it, Portnoy began digging deeper, unearthing a trail of Jewish references to, and uses for, cannabis, from the Biblical period to the present day.

“Am Yisrael High” is being mounted at a time when cannabis has never been as tolerated in the US as it is now. As of June 2021, possession and use of cannabis was legal in 18 states, where consumers can openly purchase not just cannabis flower, but cannabis chocolates, vaporizing devices filled with cannabis oil, and other products that allow users to get high without actually lighting a joint. In many ways, today’s cannabis culture is a far cry from the confrontational images of the 1960s counterculture, which was itself the consequence of prohibitive legislation. And as Portnoy observed, the tenacity of cannabis users is reflected in how the plant became one of many instruments in the struggle of Jews to survive as a community amid a slew of discriminatory restrictions and laws, particularly during the medieval period.

“You find Jews at the forefront of cannabis issues, and one of the reasons for that is that Jews were excluded from certain occupations,” Portnoy said. “They couldn’t join craft guilds, they were ghettoized, in many cases they were not allowed to own land. And so they had to find a way to earn a living in the black and gray markets.”

Yet nowadays, smoking cannabis is seen by many as a harmless equivalent to a sipping a glass of wine after work, Portnoy said. “This seems to be the trajectory,” he reflected.

“Am Yisrael High” is now on show at the YIVO Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York.

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