The art world has never quite known what to do with artists that make pipes for smoking weed. Nor have working-class artists gotten the respect they deserve. And what comes to mind when you think “Jewish artist?” At best, Marc Chagall. At worst … well, given the decrease of support for Jewish art in recent decades, nothing at all. So it’s about time to talk about Jeremy Grant-Levine, a Jewish glass artist who specializes in both bongs and biblical objects.
Grant-Levine’s parents were both sculptors and art teachers, but instead of living off of grants and big commission checks, his dad fixed washers and dryers.
“He would be like, ‘be an artist, but be a plumber too,’” Grant-Levine told Hyperallergic in an interview. His father crafted many of the family’s ritual objects by hand, offering Grant-Levine an unusually tactile relationship with Jewish tradition. “My dad made mezuzot and menorahs out of metal, so I was constantly interacting with these objects,” the artist said.
But Grant-Levine, who also goes by Germ, came to artmaking through another spiritual practice: the smoky air filed 1990s Grateful Dead concerts. “I got my first pipe off some hippie in New Haven, and it just became this tool that was always with me,” he recounted. “It became the center of this social ritual. So I became infatuated with this object; it’s almost like a talking stick. But I had no idea how they were made.”
Since you can’t quite major in Bong Design at an accredited university, Grant-Levine enrolled in the country’s only scientific glassblowing program at Salem Community College. That’s where he and many of his classmates figured out how to blow glass bowls in makeshift glass studios in their apartments. “There was this amazing knowledge share going on,” he remembers. One old-school pipe blower, named Spandex, would trade the chance to watch him work in his basement for a 6-pack of beer.
To pay the bills, Grant-Levine took a job in a weapons manufacturing factory. “We made landmine triggers, missile guidance systems for fighter jets,” he said. “The factory environment is pretty horrible. I sometimes would question what we were doing, and no one else seemed to have a problem with it. All I wanted to do was make bongs when we were making bombs!”
But there was one silver lining: The job had brought him to Philadelphia, home to one of the world’s most vibrant glass communities. “As far as pipe making and flame working goes, Philly is one of the main hubs,” the artist said. And it’s not just because the city loves smoking weed, which has been decriminalized since 2014. While deindustrialization has slowed Philly’s rich past of manufacturing, a lively network of wood, clay, textile, and glass artists remains, making the city a leader in the craft world today.
A relatively low cost of living and a distinctively non-competitive atmosphere made the perfect recipe for the growth of “Piper Row,” a nearly block-long stretch of glass pipe studios north of Center City. Grant-Levine set up shop with artists like Marble Slinger, who directed the documentary Degenerate Art: The Art and Culture of Glass Pipes (2011). “It’s kind of his fault the whole thing went mainstream,” Grant-Levine chuckled, “Which is awesome.”
A love of the herb is far from incongruent with Grant-Levine’s Jewish faith. On the contrary, it blends quite nicely, as is evident from curator Eddy Portnoy’s current show on Jewish weed culture at the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York, which also features some of Grant-Levine’s work. The exhibit includes evidence of cannabis from an ancient synagogue in Israel, a 1911 edition of Fritz Lemmermayer’s Hashish translated into Yiddish, and a mural of a Richard Nixon quote where he wondered aloud why “every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.”
Grant-Levine, a former Hebrew school teacher, was well aware of the connection before Portnoy asked him to participate in the show. “I already knew pretty psychedelic Hasids in Israel. One of my friends wrote a whole book called Cannabis Chassidis, about weed in the Torah.”
Inspired by Jewish folklore, particularly the dybbuk (a wandering spirit that searches for a human host), Grant-Levine describes his work in the YIVO show as a “gnarly, twisted rabbi figure that’s been taken over by this possessing demon.” The piece is from his past series of Rabbi bongs, inspired in part by the Orthodox men who made headlines in 2015 for kidnapping husbands who refused to give their wives religious divorce papers, or gittin in Hebrew. The ugliness and funniness of the series is immediately disarming: You can’t help but think twice about what it means to look devout, religious, and pure.
Glassblowers and Judaica artists alike imbue magic into everyday items. “My interest in glass has always been its function in ritual objects,” says Grant-Levine. “The pipe is a ritual object. A menorah is a ritual object. A mezuzah is a ritual object. A Kiddush cup is a ritual object. They’re things that are meant to be interacted with as opposed to things that are just put in a display case.”
Glass wasn’t taken seriously as “fine art” until the 1960s, but Grant-Levine has found evidence that glass workers have been making what we would call art at least since the 1800s. They would make “whimsies,” delicate glass pipes and tchotchkes shaped like canes and top hats, to show off their skills while draining the furnace at the end of the work day.
“I think there’s a bigger contingent of blue-collar artists in this world than people want to think about. It’s just kind of this unexplored world.” If works like “whimsies” and “degenerate” Rabbi bongs have been overlooked for this long, what else could the art world be missing out on by not giving working-class artists their due?