Are we finally ready to admit that the War on Drugs is a massive scam? From “reefer madness” to racial stereotypes, the United States government has long perpetuated vague counternarratives around marijuana use to curb immigration, discipline workers, and expand the prison-industrial complex. With recreational weed now legal in New York City, one Manhattan exhibition is reframing cannabis as an integral component of Jewish cultural heritage.
Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis, on view at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, reveals how Jewish people throughout history have embraced marijuana both spiritually and politically. Images and manuscripts from ancient and modern eras appear alongside paraphernalia and printed ephemera from the 20th-century legalization movement. Curator Eddy Portnoy has worked since 2020 to bring a diverse array of posters, books, and menorah-shaped pipes into the YIVO’s permanent collection to show how Jewish artists and intellectuals often took the lead in destigmatizing the “devil’s lettuce.”
“With the passing of new legislation across the country, we’re seeing that the people who gave their lives to the movement, who fought for legalization and faced jail time, are largely being forgotten,” Portnoy told Hyperallergic. Indeed, five founders of the 1960s countercultural Youth International Party (or “Yippies”) were Jewish, as were the founders of stoner-friendly companies like RAW, EZ WIDER, and Phillies cigars — the latter of which are commonly used to roll blunts. A series of glass displays draw these elements together, juxtaposing magazines and books with bongs and rolling papers.
From the medieval to the modern era, Portnoy’s research identifies Jewish communities in Africa, West Asia, and Europe using hashish and hemp in textiles, oils, and incense. Several screen-printed wall displays lay out this history with excerpts from prominent artworks. One particular reference describes a medieval smoker’s sluggishness and insatiable hunger, indicating an early case of the “munchies.” Below this, Portnoy places a delightful photo of Jewish women smoking joints circa the 1920s, underscoring the anecdote with playful irreverence.
Along the back wall of the gallery, a poster design by former High Times illustrator Steve Marcus, made specifically for this exhibition, portrays ancient Israel with a cloud of smoke emerging from the center. Forming a 420 at its crest, the number serves a surprising dual purpose here: not only is it the popular number associated with smoking but it’s also the numerological translation of the word “smoke” in Hebrew, as well as the number of years Solomon’s temple stood.
This incredible coincidence is central to Am Yisrael High, which surprises at every turn. Another wall display includes excerpts from the Talmud, quotes from the Book of Exodus, and other ancient manuscripts referencing cannabis as a medical remedy, punctuated by a print of Eugène Delacroix’s “Jewish Wedding in Morocco” (1841). Portnoy cites the 2020 discovery of charred cannabis mixed with frankincense in an ancient Israeli synagogue, making Delacroix’s orientalist painting ever-more evocative.
Together, these artistic and literary references reveal that cannabis use may go back much further than we know, and only dissipated as the diaspora spread. Nonetheless, Jewish artists and intellectuals have remained dedicated advocates, perhaps due to long-term exclusion from commercial industry. From Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan to Walter Benjamin, Jewish literary luminaries share a joint defense of “high” culture, and a selection of their books in a glass case cleverly evokes a dispensary display. Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan likewise appear on the cover of High Times back issues, while a pop-up book of activist Jack Herer’s The Emperor Wears No Clothes puts a face to the name of a beloved sativa strain.
Since opening last spring, Am Yisrael High has attracted significant media attention. Its opening reception had a line out the door, and New York-based “garbology” artist A.J. Weberman — who allegedly founded the first weed delivery service — distributed joints to visitors waiting outside. Portnoy’s efforts clearly hit on a need to redefine our understanding of weed culture. For that reason, his infographics gesture to prominent New Yorkers like Ginsberg and Dylan, but also lesser-known artists like jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, who became Louis Armstrong’s main dealer.
While these connections may seem obvious now, much of this history has been obscured by government propaganda and anti-Semitism. Across an entire wall, Richard Nixon rears his ugly head over a quote questioning why every legalization advocate is a Jew, lifted from the leaked Watergate tapes. Captured mere weeks before his War on Drugs declaration, the quote echoes fascist conspiracies about Judaism and power. In the context of this show, too, it exemplifies how US politicians manipulate half-truths to justify their prejudices.
These kinds of juxtapositions often work to Am Yisrael High’s favor in teasing out the contradictions of anti-pot ideology. So too does the show revive the radical spirit of 20th-century harm reductionists. Beneath a black Yippie flag, Portnoy cleverly places a 1971 political cartoon by underground artist Alan Shenker (under the pseudonym Yossarian) depicting an assassination attempt on Nixon. Wearing a “Stop the Pig, Serve the People” shirt, a zombie assailant fires his pistol while claiming that Groucho Marx sent him, perhaps spoofing Red Scare-era derangement. Donated to the YIVO by Weberman, this piece functions as a bold critique of elite paranoia amid today’s resurgence of anti-Semitic conspiracy.
Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis continues at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (15 West 16th Street, Flatiron, Manhattan) through April. The exhibition was curated by Eddy Portnoy.
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