I’m in one of the most ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles (on La Brea Boulevard just north of Beverly) on Friday night, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. As I’m walking to my destination, a coffee shop where I will continue my frantic quest to restore all of the work I lost because of my failed hard drive last week (nothing was recoverable), I am suddenly surrounded by large groups of Chasidic men on their way to synagogue. There are different branches of Chasidism represented in this crowd, as evidenced by their headgear and distinctive clothing. Many of the men I see wear shtreimels, the dramatic fur hats that look like large mink lampshades. Some groups wear more modern-looking hats that resemble the wide-brimmed bowler that Boy George wore during his 1980s heyday. For all their Old World ways, the men in this group give off a surprisingly hip appearance with their tailored black suits, white shirts with no ties, prayer fringes, and leather boots. With their long sidelocks and Boy George hats, they look like they could either be on their way to their crowded little shtibels for Friday night prayers or headed over to east L.A. to see some avant-garde rock band.
As I’ve written about before, there’s something about the closed-knit Chasidic communities that draws me in whenever I’m in their presence. I know that after ten minutes in their strict, pious, rule-based world I’d want to seriously rebel from the party line of what I can and cannot do, and I don’t really feel the calling to join their ranks, but in theory I find their highly structured lifestyle appealing and romantic. I admire their groupness, their uniformity, their rejection of cultural excesses, and their intense focus on family and ritual.
A group of the Boy George Chasids are headed my way in a large pack, walking briskly. “Good Shabbos,” I mutter quietly. “Good Shabbos,” a few of them respond. Some meet my gaze a bit accusingly before looking away. Who is this heathen Jew and what is he doing on a Friday night with that backpack? Maybe even glacing in the direction of an unreligious Jew is some kind of sin for them, especially on Shabbat when they are getting ready for their prayers. But others look at me with interest, and I realize I’m staring right back at them, like we are neighboring exhibits in a cross-cultural zoo. The dark-clothed men separate wordlessly into two single file lines and pass around me on the sidewalk, their black overcoats rustling. What fine material their clothes seem to be made of, I think, as I spot a straggler a few yards behind the pack. He is clearly part of this group, dressed identically and walking with the same determined gait, but there is something different about this guy. What is it? Oh my God—he’s smoking! I don’t remember ever seeing Chasidic men or women smoke, much less on the Sabbath when I know full well it is forbidden. We used to go to my orthodox grandparents on Friday nights and every week my mother and grandmother would escape to my grandmother’s bedroom after dinner and sneak in a few cigarettes. Their ruse never worked. Every single week without fail my grandfather would come in the room and start screaming, “Anita! Judy! Not on Shabbos!” at which point they would snuff out their cigarettes like they were schoolgirls caught by the principal. This went on for around four decades but every Friday my grandfather acted as shocked as if it were the very first time he had discovered such a shameful display.
I can’t for the life of me imagine why this Chasidic guy, who seems to be around 18 or 19, would dare to smoke in public, just a few feet behind his group. As we walk past each other, I get caught in a cloud of the smoke he is exhaling. WHAAAAAAT?! Filling my nostrils is the unmistakable aroma of marijuana. Yep. Pot. Weed. Grass. Dope. Was I being videotaped for the Yiddish version of “Punk’d” or maybe a new reality show called “Chasidic Bloopers and Blunders?” God knows I act like a reality show contestant with my response. I stop dead in my tracks, spin my head around in a whiplash-inducing double-take, and feel my mouth open so wide you could stuff three matzoh balls into it. Surely there has to be an explanation. Maybe the poor guy has severe glaucoma and got a special dispensation from the Rebbe to smoke medical marijuana on Shabbat? I look ahead at the larger group and they don't even turn around to check on their pot-smoking straggler.
I start to think how naïve I am to be so shocked at the idea of religious Jews smoking pot. What fantasies do I carry about these groups that disregards the fact they are human beings with the same dramas and foibles as the rest of us? Do I think they aren’t subject to addictions or urges or even illicit crime because of their group status? I can't help but think of another group that is as closed-knit and family-focused as the Chasids—the MAFIA!
I suddenly remember some lurid reports from a few years back about a few Chasidic rabbis in Brooklyn who were caught laundering drug money and working closely with Columbian drug cartels. Oy! Needless to say, there are bad apples in every group. But what’s the deal with my reefer-toting Chasidic boy? I’ll never know but I start wondering whether there are any connections between pot and ultra-orthodoxy that I know nothing about. While I’m sure there is no official condoning of drug use in this community, I do manage to find a few websites that extoll the use of marijuana in Jewish tradition, most notably an interesting blog called Cannabis Chassidis that purports to reveal the secret Jewish history of cannabis. Who knew? “Don’t blow this site off as sophomoric stoner B.S.,” the Jerusalem-based blogger asks his readers. “This is actually some of the deepest and realest Torah available on the Internet.” I’ll bet, although I think it’s safe to say that it’s not the Torah interpretation that my orthodox grandfather would have embraced.
When I get to my destination, I continue my review of all of the documents I lost in my hideous computer crash. Each time I remember another non-backed-up cache of files, I find myself cringing and shaking my head in disbelief. Besides my important work files, I lost all of the research I had done about my ancestry, including hundreds of documents about my own Chasidic roots in Poland. If anyone ever had the need for some Shabbat mind-altering drugs, it is me. Should I try to find my Chasidic friend and see if I can score some kosher weed?