What is about Jews and marijuana? That’s what Richard Nixon asked H. R. (Bob) Halderman 50-years ago, on May 26, 1971 to be precise. The White House tapes recorded Nixon saying, “There’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards who is out there to legalize marijuana is Jewish.” Nixon added, “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews.” Like a lot of things that Nixon said, his comments about Jews and marijuana had little if any basis in fact.
All the bastards who wanted to legalize weed in the late Sixties and early Seventies weren’t Jewish. They were also Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists. Some worshipped at the shrine of cannabis. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the oldest and the most efficacious pro–pot force in the word, has never been solely a group made up of Jews.
Mr. Nixon had a problem with Jews that was of his own making. He also had a problem with marijuana, also of his own making. Under the Nixon’s administration’s Controlled Substances Act, marijuana was listed as a “Schedule 1” drug with no medical value and the potential for maximum abuse. Fifty years later, it’s still a Schedule I drug, and illegal by federal law, though at last count “adult” use is permitted in 12 states and the District of Columbia and also permitted for medical use in 13 states.
Not surprisingly, given their long and arduous history, Jews have turned to all sorts of trades, including tinkers, tailors, sailors and spies. It’s likely Jews have been tinkers who mended household utensils throughout the ages. But Google the words “Jewish tinkers” and you get, “Jewish thinkers.” Indeed, what self-respecting Jew isn’t a thinker? Jews have certainly been soldiers and tailors. “Schneider” is the Yiddish word for tailor. In modern times, Jews have also been effective spies, especially when they have worked for the Mossad.
Fast forward to the present day. Michael Steinmetz, the CEO at Flow Kana— a major cannabis company in the U.S.—is one of the few cannabis growers and entrepreneurs who has advertised his Jewishness. “Mazel Tov” may be the only widely recognized Jewish cannabis farm in California. Cary Neiman, the founder of Mazel Tov, says he doesn’t consider himself a religious person, though he adds that he has derived a sense of community from Judaism.
According to Neal Gabler, the author of An Empire of their Own, Jews invented Hollywood, though he had to exaggerate and embellish to make his point. One could not accurately say that Jews invented the cannabiz, though it’s true that the most advanced scientific study of cannabis has taken place in Israel for more than half a century. The Israeli chemist, Raphael Mechoulam “discovered” THC in 1968 when cannabis played an essential role in the counterculture. Later marijuana became an agriculture crop, and then a commodity in an industry all its own. Now, it’s a business that’s taxed and regulated, from California to Michigan and Maine. Outlaws, including Jewish outlaws, are coming in from the cold, slowly. Old habits are hard to break.
The history of the relationship between Jews and cannabis is still being written. Archeologists have argued that artifacts and seeds unearthed at digs show that cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years. Pot activists say that’s a good reason why weed ought to be legalized by the federal government. Foes of legalization insist that simply because it has been used by humans in the past, doesn’t mean that it should be used in the present.
Biblical scholars and historians point to a passage in the Old Testament that mentions a plant named “qaneh bosem.” Like marijuana, qaneh bosem is described as “reedy, aromatic and sticky.” If qaneh bosem looks, smells and feels like marijuana, as it does, it might well be marijuana. Then, too, it’s possible that the “burning bush,” which also appears in the Bible, is none other than the cannabis plant. Rastafarians insist it is.
Along with Berbers in Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, Jews were involved long ago in the lucrative hashish trade, which spread from the Middle East to North Africa. The mystic, composer and herbalist, Hildegard von Bingen. recommended cannabis because, she explained, “it diminishes the bad humors and makes the good humors strong.” Hildegard also suggested that people who were “weak in the head” and had “a vacant mind” refrain from cannabis because it would “make the person suffer pain in his or her head.” Sounds like she had a bad experience with weed.
Early Taoists discouraged its use because it was too yin. Pope Innocent VIII condemned it because it was used in what he regarded as “satantic masses.” The medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, prescribed it for infections. What’s clear is that cannabis has been controversial through the ages, and that it has also been used as a sacrament by various religions in Asia, Africa and Europe.
Ron Silver, the executive chef and the owner of Bubby’s restaurant on Hudson Street in Manhattan, says “As far as I’m concerned, marijuana has been legal ever since I was born.” He adds, “In parts of Asia and Africa it grows wild.”
Silver says he has been smoking weed ever since he was a teenager, though for most of his life he lived in the cannabis closet. Recently, he came out. “It’s a joy not to have to hide the fact anymore,” he tells me. While he’s not an advocate for “couch lock,” it would be fair to call him a cannabis connoisseur who is taking marijuana places where it has never been before. As the founder of Azuca and the company’s top chef, he makes cannabis edibles and cannabis drinks.
Many of Azuca’s products have “CBD,” which isn’t psychoactive, though it might help an insomniac sleep and also provide a cancer survivor with a healthy appetite. Other Azuca cannabis products, which are not yet on the market, have THC, which is psychoactive. Ingest it and you might think you’ve seen the original burning bush, or maybe you’ll be persuaded to become a rastafarian and make weed a sacrament.
Ron Silver, who was born in New York, says that when he was a teenager he had the opportunity to travel to Spy Rock Road in Mendocino County, California and observe up close and personal the cultivation of marijuana. “I pitched a tent on land a relative owned and lived like Tom Sawyer,” Silver explains. “It was wonderful.” The summer that Silver lived in a tent in the Triangle and learned how to cultivate primo weed, sheriffs and deputies raided gardens, arrested farmers and destroyed crops.
“Once, on a flight between San Francisco and Salt Lake City I checked a bag with marijuana,” he tells me. “When we were in the air the whole plane stank. After we landed, I grabbed my luggage, took off and didn’t look back.” Yes, Silver has had “chutzpah,” or balls, but it would not be fair or accurate to describe him as a smuggler or a trafficker. He has had other fish to fry.
While California cannabis moved slowly from illegality to legality, Silver was cooking up a storm at Bubby’s, the restaurant he started with $10,000 cash. He has operated it for the last 30 years, through terrorist attacks, super storms like Sandy and the financial meltdown of 2007-2008. “Running a restaurant is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. Silver also ventured halfway around the world to Tokyo, Japan, where, with backing from Japanese businessmen, he opened six restaurants: Bubby’s Akasaka, Bubby’s Shiodome, Bubby’s Yaechika and Bubby’s Yaesu.
“That was a challenge,” Silver says. “The Japanese have a rice-based culture and cuisine, and Bubby’s relies on wheat for so many dishes. I had to teach the Japanese how to work with flour. They taught me a lot about rice.”
Silver married and raised a family in Manhattan. He hasn’t encouraged his kids to smoke dope. The youngest doesn’t know about the laboratory that he set up a couple of blocks from home, where he has used his kitchen experience and culinary expertise to experiment with cannabis. After years of diligent work, he discovered how to make pot “hydrophilic” or water friendly. The essential oils in cannabis, which contain the plant’s powerful cannabinoids, don’t dissolve in water. It’s true: oil and water don’t mix. But Silver persuaded cannabis oils to be polite to water, so the human body can absorb them more easily.
In his lab, he discovered how to isolate the molecules in cannabis. He added the ones that he prized the most to both edibles and liquids. His products are fast-acting, safe and reliable. Silver founded Azuca and joined forces with an unlikely business partner, Kim Rael, a New Mexico native who has a B.A. from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford. Rael served as the CEO at Qynergy, an innovative energy company, and worked as an aide to Jeff Bingaman, a U.S. Senator from the Land of Enchantment.
These days, Rael sits on the Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico and on the Board of Directors of the International Women’s Forum. “We needed to have an adult in the room,” Silver tells me. “Kim is great.” A versatile cook in her own kitchen, Rael explains, “I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and wanted to get out of tech and into the wellness sector. I was in a focus group where we tasted cannabis-infused sugar. I had been a skeptic, but I became an instant convert.”
One of Azuca’s cannabis-infused sugar products, which contains CBD, not THC—the psychoactive ingredient—is on the menu at Silver’s restaurant, which is open seven days a week, from 8 am. to 9:15 p.m. You have to be 21 or over to be served the CBD sugar.
Tourists and newbies who show up at Bubby’s often expect to find a New York-style Jewish deli. Whatever it is, it’s not that.
Though he was born a Jew and raised a Jew, with a Jewish sense of humor gleaned from the likes of Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks, Silver shies away from “Jew Food” that includes classics such as kasha, knishes, kugle and tzimmes.
“I have nothing Kosher on Bubby’s menu,” Silver tells me. “I go through 1,100 pounds of bacon a week. In the kitchen we use lard to make the crust for our pies.” In his spare time, he’s revising Bubby’s Brunch Cookbook. In the new edition, he will urge chefs to convert from butter and vegetable oils to lard. “They won’t be sorry,” he says. “You can taste the difference. Pies are better with lard.”
At Bubby’s, Silver aims, not for culinary orthodoxy, but for culinary diversity. This year for St. Patrick’s Day, the restaurant served corned beef and cabbage, and for Passover, that old stand-by, matzo brei. Every day, the wait staff serves an honor roll of comfort foods: buttermilk biscuits with jam, mac ‘n’ cheese, meatloaf, fried chicken and apple pie.
“Some people might call me a bad Jew,” Silver says. “Thinking back to Hebrew school, I remember I was always getting into trouble, breaking the rules and causing grief for my mother. But it was non-malicious mischief. Over the years, Judaism has given me a sense of cultural identity.” Silver feels much the same about cannabis. It has helped to make him into the man he is today. After all, as someone observed centuries ago, we are what we eat.
Earlier this year. the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which is based in Farmington Hill, Michigan—hardly a center for the consumption and cultivation of cannabis—adopted a resolution for “full legalization” of marijuana in the U.S. The resolution states, “all laws making the production, sale, trade, possession, and use of cannabis a criminal offense—for any reason, including recreational—should be immediately repealed.” Silver has been acting under the assumption that it’s legal for a long time.
While he can be a wisenheimer, he’s not a wise guy of the kind Martin Scorsese depicts in movies like Goodfellas and The Irishman. If Scorsese were to make a movie about Silver and his love of cannabis and food, he might call it “Mensch,” or perhaps “The Man with the Yiddish Cup.” Richard Nixon is surely shaking his fist and threatening to close down Bubby’s, lock up Silver and throw away the keys.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.)