A new exhibition reveals how Jewish people throughout history have embraced marijuana both spiritually and politically.
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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.