Marijuana use among the Hasidim in Brooklyn

Marijuana use among the Hasidim in Brooklyn

The following post was written by a guest author who had some very valuable insights into recent trends in male Hasidic culture. The impetus was a late 2021 street poster that warned of the dangers of drugs.

The folding table was 6 feet long. We usually picked them up at Home Depot to furnish the religious hut, the sukkah, built on balconies annually in the autumn for the holiday of Sukkot. We sat on folding chairs around the folding table, 5 men all dressed in white cotton shirts, covered with off-white wool tzizit, and over that, black polyester bekishe coats, and fur shtreimlech on our shaved heads with dangling sidelocks.

Although it was past midnight with many neighbors sleeping in their huts, we sang holiday songs, gossiped, sipped Yardan Cab, laughed and passed time in good spirits. Occasionally, the hostess came out and slipped a platter of something onto the table and quickly disappeared into the house. One of the men produced a cigarette. He clarified that it’s really a joint of the “schoirah,” the stuff. He looked at me as if to say, don’t tell me you don’t know what a joint is. I didn’t. But knowing him, I had a hunch that he too didn’t know until recently. Soon the laughter intensified.

For decades, Hasidim have seen the use of illicit substances as a plague that, with the occasional exception, skipped their communities. Hasidim even use the drug epidemics to contrast their own meaningful lifestyle, where, they will argue, escapism is never needed, against the decadence of the secular lifestyle, which is devoid of true contentment. Anecdotally, I knew of Hasidic individuals rumored to have been addicted to cocaine, to have contracted HIV from heroin needles, to have overdosed on painkillers. I filed them under rare freak stories. They were juicy scandals precisely because they were uncommon.

A poster proudly proclaiming this to be a community free of drugs, among other vices.

To be sure, I wouldn’t have known whether drug use was prevalent among Hasidim because, as with all taboos, I only heard unconfirmed whispers of gossip. They certainly were never reported in Hasidic media, where taboo behavior goes unreported by design, and causes of death are limited to age, illness, accidents, tragic accidents — never suicide or overdose. What is undesired is not acknowledged, in part not to “open the eyes” of those who might become intrigued.

In the last decade, though, way before NY decriminalized marijuana, it felt as though something was changing with marijuana and Hasidim. My encounter with my proud neighbor and his joint in the sukkah was followed that winter by an encounter with a coworker on the holiday of Purim, and suddenly I realized it either had been hiding in plain sight or that I was witnessing the emergence of a new phenomenon. I could now spot it and smell it in certain loose settings. Three groups were likely to be marijuana-friendly: 1) Men involved in the music scene, the most developed art form among Hasidic men 2) Chilled Men, the new Hasid steeped in a specific brand of bourgeois lifestyle 3) The men with New Age-ish “vibes,” or “connection,” as they would call it. There’s a great deal of overlap between the three groups.

This is an example of a very explicit weed song, from the artist Shloime Bernstein of Israel:

Song excerpt:

Let us
take a little leaf, rub a flower
very, very holy.

Let us
Roll a tongue, schlep a little bit
very, very holy.

Oh, oh, oh. Always:

My flower lifts me
it fills my soul with a life that is holy.

Oh, oh, oh. Always:

My flower vibes with me,
and makes everything so soulful.
And makes everything so soulful.

Recently, I picked up references to pot or generally getting “high” in the wedding songs, a Hasidic youth underground music genre produced by talented boys for their friends’ weddings. Their lyrics are unfiltered and teem with yeshiva inside baseball. They offer a rare window into the zeitgeist of yeshiva boys, something most Hasidic adults are usually unaware of. Those songs appear to suggest that weed is commonplace among some of the 20-year-old Hasidic men. In this song, the lyrics refer to being “high as a kite” at a wedding.

In another wedding song, there’s a reference at minute 2.43: “Want to get high? Get a drag of my weed.”

Here’s another wedding song that is possibly referencing pot:

Of course!

See this boy dance
See as his eyes shine

from the same tree sown
on the same trip you all go…

Recently, pushback against the use of cannabis has surfaced into the open. When that happens, it usually indicates that it is no longer taboo and can no longer be kept under wraps. Some do so because they worry that silence at this point is dangerous. Instead of shielding the young and the innocent, the calculation now seems to go, it’s imperative to raise awareness and sound the alarms.

Poster naming the drug “cannabis”

Last month, posters appeared in the streets of Williamsburg raising awareness that drugs are breaching the periphery of the community. It quoted Halachic authorities from the ‘70s with rulings against drug use because they inflict harm on the body and soul. It mentions “especially the grass called cannabis, which until recent years was banned in all states just like the hallucinogenic drugs.” The poster is addressed to religious educators, positions held by men, and uses the authoritative learned men’s written language, Hebrew, instead of the hoi polloi’s Yiddish. This could be a choice to shield the young who don’t read Hebrew, or simply because the poster was disseminated by activists from Lakewood, as the address at the bottom suggests, where Yiddish is not spoken. Rabbinic Hebrew, therefore, is the lingua franca between Hasidic communities who don’t use English internally and Yeshivish communities who don’t use Yiddish.

In recent weeks, following a string of shocking overdoses in the community, a user on the popular Yiddish forum opened a discussion: “It’s time to talk about it – addiction among the youth.”

The forum is usually heavily censored. Moderators usually remove topics or even expressions that are taboo or out of step with the Hasidic mainstream. This time, though, the moderators kept the discussion up, which grew to 8 pages. The users debated the wisdom of posting publicly that drug use is popular and risking legitimizing it to those yet unaware. Others attempted to differentiate cannabis from hard drugs, while others argued that this, too, might undermine the message that it is dangerous.

These alarmist discussions seem to happen now more frequently and more publicly. This is unlikely to happen if there were no proliferation of marijuana use among certain segments of Hasidic men.

In April 2019 the now-defunct Yiddish magazine JP-Gemeynda published an article which urged parents and educators to inform themselves on weed. “The reality is that this topic is on its way to landing on our tables with a thud, even though this is not yet a subject that is discussed openly. Therefore people — specifically parents and educators and therapists — need to have an informed perspective on the subject…”

The pamphlet concludes with the following verdict on pot:

Ultimately, there are no shortcuts. Only real work, not drugs and quick fixes, can help.

A responsible Jew must do the long work of overcoming shortcomings, of faith, of prayer, of working on themselves, and to learn to encourage a change in thinking. A gentile might grab a glass of liquor, but a Jew works on himself. A l’chaim once in a while might help, but if a person thinks that things will improve with pills or pot or alcohol then he is on his way to trouble. The key to everything good is within you. With god’s help.

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