For Eddy Portnoy, it started with a bong. Not just any old bong you can pick up in a local smoke shop, though.
"I saw a photograph online of a really beautiful glass bong in the shape of a menorah," Portnoy told Gothamist. "And I thought to myself, wow, this is really an amazing artifact."
Like many people, Portnoy got into smoking marijuana during college, but his interest in the drug faded away over the years.
"I may still have THC in my system from that time, but it's something that I really only use occasionally now," he said.
But in his current role as the academic advisor and exhibitions curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan, he's always on the lookout for artifacts connected to Jewish material culture.
Something about this menorah bong, made by the company GRAV, lit up his imagination. And since that acquisition, he has spent the last two years researching the somewhat unexplored history of Judaism and cannabis, from Talmudic mentions to religious rituals, from pioneering scientific research to the legalization movement and modern counterculture.
"Through my research, I discovered that Jews have been using cannabis for centuries, and there's a pretty significant history that I think most people are not familiar with at all," he said. "And had I known that in Hebrew school, I might have been a little bit more interested in what was going on."
That research and those artifacts are now the subject of Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis, a new exhibit at YIVO, located in the Center for Jewish History building near Union Square. It is the institute's first on-site exhibition since COVID began, and it explores the contributions Jews have made in "the field of cannabis" alongside dozens of relics and photos.
Portnoy said the intertwined history of Judaism and marijuana dates back to the Bible. There are references in Exodus, Song of Songs, the Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts to a plant known as KaNeh-Bosem (phonetically related to the word cannabis), which is translated as "fragrant reed" or "aromatic cane." It was a substance used in the incense that was burned in Jerusalem's ancient temples, as well as part of an anointing oil that the high priests put on themselves.
Lending credence to this, an archeological dig in Israel a few years ago found two altars in the ruins of a third-century BCE synagogue. On top of these altars were burned substances: one had the burned residue of frankincense, and the other had the burned residue of cannabis.
"So it appears that it was part and parcel of Jewish ritual to burn cannabis as incense," Portnoy said, "and obviously in the wake of 2,000 years of diaspora, it's something that apparently disappeared."
Under the Jewish principle of dina d'malchuta dina, Jews are expected to follow the law of the land wherever they are. With cannabis generally illegal or taboo in Western nations, it was also not permitted for Jews. But in other parts of the world where it was a more accepted part of the culture, it was sometimes incorporated into rituals. In Morocco, for example, it was a tradition for Moroccan Jews to sprinkle hashish in the couscous for wedding parties.
And in his research, Portnoy found that Jews who actively used cannabis over the centuries tended to be located in the Middle East, where cannabis in the form of hashish was popular.
The exhibit includes a number of examples of fragmented documents from the Cairo Geniza, a collection of around 400,000 Jewish manuscript fragments from the 9th through 19th centuries. That includes a letter written in Judeo-Arabic dated from the 12th-13th centuries, addressed to Abū l-Ḥasan, asking him to purchase some hashish for the letter writer.
It reads: "May the esteemed elder Abū l-Ḥasan — God preserve him — graciously obtain for the bearer, with the silver that he has, 50 dirhams, imitation Sammanūdī silk. He also has two carats of ingot silver. Obtain hashish for me with them. After I kiss your [hand]s and your feet — peace."
Portnoy explained, "To me, that's really kind of like a 12th century Venmo — here's some money, please buy me weed!"
In the modern era, major cultural figures involved with cannabis include Allen Ginsberg, who co-founded LeMar (Legalize Marijuana), the first marijuana legalization advocacy group in America.
Many important Jewish contributions have come in the realm of scientific research and medical applications of cannabis. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli organic chemist, discovered the endocannabinoid system, and is credited as the first chemist to isolate THC as the component of cannabis (and CBD) that gets you high. "He's very much considered the godfather of cannabis research, and all current cannabis research very much springs from his discoveries," Portnoy said.
Then there's Lester Grinspoon, a psychiatry professor at Harvard University who became interested in marijuana in the '60s.
"He was convinced by his close friend Carl Sagan, who was a huge pot smoker and very much an advocate of cannabis use and legalization, to smoke himself," Portnoy said. "And he published a book in 1971, Marihuana Reconsidered, the gist of which was that not only has the United States government been feeding people a story based on hysteria and untruths that was not scientifically viable, but cannabis really may have scientific and medicinal uses that should be explored. And this particular book, to a certain degree, laid the groundwork for the legalization movement that began to really gain steam in the 1970s and '80s."
The exhibit opens on Thursday May 5th with a free panel discussion moderated by Portnoy, featuring horticulturist, educator, and legalization activist Ed Rosenthal, attorney Adriana Kertzer, Rabbi/Dr. Yosef Glassman and journalist Madison Margolin. (You can get more info here.)
The exhibit will be open throughout the rest of the year. And Portnoy said it only scratches the surface of Jewish contributions to the expanding marijuana culture.
"There are currently so many Jews involved in the cannabis industry, it was absolutely impossible to include all of them, or even most of them," he said. "So it's something that continues to evolve. And as more and more states begin to legalize cannabis, I think you'll see more and more activity on the part of Jews, creating different types of ritual involving cannabis and really just making it more part of Jewish life."