It’s a history that dates back 700 years or more, according to a new exhibit, Am Yisrael: The Story of Jews and Cannabis, opening May 5 in New York.
“There was this famous geniza in the Ben Era synagogue in Cairo that was used as a literary ‘dump’ from the year 900 to the 19th century,” begins Eddie Portnoy, curator of the exhibit being mounted at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
A geniza is a room in a synagogue housing damaged books and documents which, because they mention the name of God, under Jewish law must be ritually buried, not thrown out. Among the hundreds of thousands of documents scholars found in that Cairo geniza in the 19th century, “They found material that referenced hashish,” says Portnoy.
In a recent interview, he described letters, contracts and other documents that requested that the recipient buy the sender hashish, which at the time was the main form of cannabis used in the Middle East.
In one such letter, written in the 1400s, Portnoy says, a bit roguishly, “The writer talks about people who use hashish. He says they slack off from work; they walk around with their eyes all red, and they eat everything in sight.
“Some countries were using it for medicinal purposes, but they [were] also using it to get high, as an intoxicant,” Portnoy continues, “so finding that was really amazing to me. They’re just regular people…what this meant was that there were Jews getting high…This 15th century reference to ‘the munchies’ is hilarious!”
It’s also a reference that gives us a human connection to ancient and medieval Jewry, says Portnoy, who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish History and is senior researcher and exhibition curator at YIVO, whose acronym stands for Yiddish Scientific Institute; the organization’s mission is to study the language and culture of Eastern Europe’s Jews.
“I found this stuff in all kinds of places,” Portnoy continues of the exhibit. “As part of the exhibit, I have references to rabbinic literature, something called Responsa, written by rabbis, that mention Jewish involvement in the cannabis industry. Most of this comes from North Africa. There are 18th and 19th century references in rabbinic literature to Jews who had permission from the king of Morocco to sell tobacco or hashish to small, local dealers.”
Those antique references to cannnabis from the Cairo geniza were mostly connected to the Middle East’s Mizrahi Jews, but Portnoy also discusses Northern Africa’s Sephardic Jews and Europe’s Ashkenazi. One letter to a charitable organization in 1880s Turkey mentions how the Jews of that country’s city of Izmir “love smoking hashish and can’t be dissuaded from it.” Kabbalists, or Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages in North Africa, also smoked cannabis to enhance their spirituality, Portnoy found.
Of course the connections between Jews and cannabis have continued into modern times. Portnoy mentions an “ode to hashish” written in 1901 by the founder of Zionism, Vladimir Jabotinsky, then a student in Vienna. And there is a book about hashish written in the 1920s by the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin.
“In the 1920s and ’30s, cannabis becomes an important fixture of the jazz scene,” Portnoy points out, “and the person who’s best known for bringing it to the New York City jazz scene is a man by the [stage name] of Mezz Mezzrow,” a Chicago clarinetist who eventually moved to New York and “became Louis Armstrong’s pot dealer.”
Portnoy’s references to cannabis in the 20th century continue: the beats poet Allen Ginsberg became one of cannabis’s early public proponents, leading the first legalization protest in the United States in 1964. In the late 1960s, marijuana became core element of the Yippies’ (Youth International Party) political platform. Their flag: “a red star on a black background with a giant marijuana leaf in the middle,” Portnoy reports.
In today’s business world, he points to cannabis companies owned by Jews, like Tikkun (originally Tikkun Olam in Israel), Mazel Tov Farms and Doc Green’s, a Berkeley-based medical marijuana collective founded by Orthodox Jews.
Science figures in to the Jewish-cannabis relationship, too, Portnoy points out. Here he mentions here the industry giant Raphael Mechoulam, the now-91-year-old Israel chemist who discovered the cannabinoid system and is “the linchpin of cannabis medical research.” Ed Rosenthal, another scientist, is a leading horticulturalist and author in the cannabis space and will join a panel on the exhibit’s opening night.
From the political realm, Portnoy lists Jack Herer, the late “father of the legalization movement.”
A wall profiling Herer, Ginsberg and other figures will be featured at the exhibit, along with such artifacts as reproductions of 13th and 14th century documents from the Cairo geniza; Easy Wider rolling papers from the 1970s; and religious objects like seder plates decorated with images of cannabis leaves, and a menorah “bong” on which, Portnoy says, “You can light one [branch] each night.”
“The purpose of the exhibit,” Portnoy says, “is to, one, approach a topic that has never been approached before in a Jewish museum, and also to feature the contributions that Jews have made in the many realms of cannabis, whether they be business and commercial aspects, science and medicine, botany… It wouldn’t be any surprise to find rabbis that would say on Purim that instead of drinking, you can get high.
“[Cannabis] is quite topical right now. It seemed like an appropriate time to do it.”