The author in Tzfat

David Morgan

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The Magic Jews

On finding a spiritual community that is higher than high

Madison Margolin
November 28, 2023
The author in Tzfat

David Morgan

In 2008, drug journalist Hamilton Morris’ “The Magic Jews” appeared in Vice, detailing what it was like hanging out and doing drugs with haimish renegades. I later learned that he even got the magazine to expense a sheet of acid that he’d do with his “sources.”

The son of Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, Hamilton pioneered early-21st-century gonzo journalism, and would come to be one of the most respected drug journalists of our generation. My old school J-school professors would probably have frowned upon his less-than-sober approach (even though he skillfully has maintained a simultaneous air of distance), but it’s precisely that approach that landed the staid and lanky, bohemian drug nerd-cum-researcher the star role in his own Viceland docuseries, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, something of an Anthony Bourdain-style, international deep dive into the world of esoteric mind-altering substances.

I read “The Magic Jews” article with curiosity. Reporting on the phenomenon was one thing, but there was something else that kindled me—a desire to experience it altogether.

I had never felt at home in any Jewish denomination. Certainly not the bland Reform congregation my parents switched to after we dropped out of the Conservative shul. And the SJW (“social justice warrior”) granola Jews headquartered in the Bay Area didn’t really hit the spot for me either. To the hardcore Chasidim, I was probably as good as goy, and I never took to being mkareved (brought into Orthodoxy) by Chabad (religiously curious, I’ve always been the perfect bait). You couldn’t pay me to attend a Young Jewish Professionals function, and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the self-proclaimed “cultural Jews,” who related to Judaism mainly through bagel memes. Plus, despite growing up in the satsang (the spiritual community of devotees of my father’s guru, Neem Karoli Baba), I myself didn’t really identify as “HinJew,” never went by a Hindu name, never really chanted kirtan, and never claimed to be a devotee, myself, of a Hindu deity or guru. If anything, the closest I’d so far come to relevant was the Judaism I experienced with the Na Nachs in Tzfat or the hippies on the beach in Tel Aviv (who also had roots in places like the bohemian Jerusalem neighborhoods of Nachlaot and Ein Kerem, the area surrounding Pardes Chana, or the Moshav).

I wanted something holy and haimish, frum-informed yet free, psychedelic and somatically embodied. I remember once the rabbis at Berkeley Hillel asked us to write on a poster board when we felt “spiritual.” The obvious answer to me was my first psychedelic trip spent shrooming at Venice Beach, but I was too shy in that context to write it down. Still, I held in my heart a yearning for a Judaism that not only honored that experience but also gave me the tools, language, ritual, and framework with which to integrate it. I wanted to understand and relate to my psychedelic experience through a form of religion that on a daily basis gave me daily soulful nourishment and chizzuk. Because, as Ram Dass learned, you can come up and come down countless times—but only through sober (religious) practice can you harness and sustain a sense of expanded awareness and elevation. I remember being sad at the end of my first shroom trip because I wanted to experience that quality of presence and mysticism on my own, not with outside assistance. Maybe Judaism, the language of my soul, was the place to look?

Without consciously realizing or articulating it, I began to query what it meant to be a Magic Jew. Perhaps “magic” was the denomination that could offer me a new Jewish paradigm, rooted in healing and authentic, accessible spiritual connection?

The haimish essence runs thick as an undercurrent through the realm of the Magic Jews. Haimish is a way of life, and a mentality, rooted in the word for “home.” It’s haimish to invite a stranger in for Shabbos dinner; it’s haimish to take the bus from Williamsburg to Monsey, where a mechitza separates men and women and the bus driver speaks Yiddish. It’s haimish to eat the traditional stew called cholent—a culinary mix and metaphor of everything in one. The psychedelic experience itself has elements of haimishness to it too, in that it may connect your soul back to its home in the body, and shed light on that sense of cosmic oneness and connection to community—especially if you’re tripping in a Jewish setting or on a holiday.

It’s this psychedelic notion of oneness—the concept that’s so central to the “mystical experience,” to the entheogenic experience, and to Jewish theology (there is one G-d; Adonai Echad)—that connects us back into an integrated unitive whole, composed of ourselves, our community, and ultimately the Divine. How could so many disparate things in the world actually be One? Rather than pose the question, attempting to intellectualize it, maybe we’re better off just experiencing it through the body? The daily practices that remind us who we are enable us to use our bodies to harness spiritual insights, providing us with rituals to consistently ground our highs, and giving us opportunities to incorporate community ethos. I’m not talking about far-out stuff, but rather the most accessible embodiment of prayer: shuckling, yoga, wrapping tefillin, washing your hands before you break bread, or using your lips to say Sh’ma and Modeh Ani every night and morning—brachot and religious practices that hold the magic in mundane activities like eating, going to sleep, waking up, and everything in between. That’s what encompasses the kaleidoscope of the Jewish and psychedelic experience.

Without consciously realizing or articulating it, I began to query what it meant to be a Magic Jew.

By serendipity, I would come to meet the Magic Jews themselves, the very characters featured in Hamilton’s article. In a class called Journalism of Ideas, my professor—an award-winning author and contributor to magazines like The New Yorker—encouraged me (and gave me honors on account of it) to pursue whatever far-out ideas sparked my interest


I queried Facebook, seeking anyone who knew anything about the intersection of Judaism and psychedelic experience. Two people—Lex Pelger, a drug researcher/writer whom I met through Brooklyn’s psychedelic scene, and Marissa Nuckels, who hosted Tel Aviv’s Kabbalat Shabbat potlucks—both tagged a fellow named Yoseph Needelman.

Yoseph grew up in South Williamsburg not among, but adjacent to the Chasidim. Now he lived on a moshav near Jerusalem. Known among his friends as “Crazy Yoseph,” publicly he was best known for his book Cannabis Chasidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs. The book’s tagline asks and answers in Yoseph’s signature style: “Is marijuana kosher? Yes, of course it is. But the better question is: If I am going to get higher than high, isn’t there some useful, traditional guidance about how to best do so? And if not, then what good is the Torah?”

One of my greatest inspirations and a dear friend, Yoseph is my spirit animal—part hippie/part intellectual, brilliant, funny, and lighthearted, last seen in a reggae-style knit hat/beanie/yarmulke, known for his mishmashed stews made of any and all leftovers, and adored by those who can appreciate his winding, Aquarian, philosophical discourse. Psychedelic Judaism incarnate, he’s an ecstatic dancer, famed among his chevra for doing a naked rooftop Shabbos in his 20s with an old school crew known as Gefilte or “Jahfilte.”

It’s like that Dali quote, “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.” That’s Yoseph; you need to be on a level to get him, then to love him, but once you’re there it’s almost like a litmus test as to how much you’ve actually tuned in to the Jewish psychedelic vibration.

When I had my first video call with Yoseph one afternoon from an East Village cafe, we discussed all the things, but he was in Israel, and I needed to connect with locals in New York. Reaching into his Jahfilte Rolodex, he told me I had to meet Aaron and Yitzchak.

April 17, 2015: Upon first sight of the duo, what Aaron—donning his Mets cap, plain T-shirt, and skinny jeans—lacked in aesthetic weirdness (at least for someone I was supposed to interview about Judaism and psychedelics), Yitzchak made up for with his long curly hair and outstretched arms, as they walked toward me on Columbus Avenue, as if greeting an old friend they hadn’t seen in a while.

Upon those first hugs, I knew I’d met my soul family—neshamas I’d already known for a very long time, especially Aaron. Seven years later, as I write this, cross-legged on the couch of an upstate New York bookstore-cafe (shout out to Rough Draft), I text Aaron:

MM: “Hey, this goes without saying, but as I am writing my book, I’m realizing you might be making some appearances. There’s obviously no way to describe certain experiences, or my entrypoint into certain things, without including you as a character ...”
AG: “Hey thanks, I sure hope I’d be mentioned lol, I think you’ve also said you intended to.”
MM: “Yes, I totally intend to. I mean, it’s a reported journalistic piece, and it’s also a memoir, with sections about my family and other stuff. I guess there’s a weird, heimish, dysfunctional love story in there too. But I’ll try to make us look as not-crazy as possible.”
AG: “Why, it’s a completely crazy heimedelic love story, and at least one of us was crazy for at least part of it.”

That initial meeting with Aaron had been a few weeks in the making as coordinating a time to meet up took its own twists and turns. I thought I’d simply sit down with him for an hour and do an interview, but one thing led to another and our first meeting was on a Friday afternoon, settling into Shabbos. I didn’t know anyone else would be there, let alone people who’d come to be fixtures in my life from that day forward. And I didn’t realize that I’d end up staying through the entire Shabbos dinner until midnight—and then could have hopped the train downtown with Aaron to a party in SoHo with his friends from the fashion scene.

As fate had it, Aaron and Yitzchak—the duo behind that first night’s Shabbos meal, and former business partners in a few downtown event spaces and vintage stores, circa 2008, when Yitzchak worked as a runway fashion designer—were also the two main characters in Hamilton Morris’ story in Vice—“The Magic Jews.”

While I sat there at the kitchen counter of a messy Upper West Side penthouse (and “feral Chasidish” crash pad) that I’d arrived at—belonging to an often-absent, in-and-out-of-town businessman, academic, and author of a memoir about his own travels in the “Hasidic underground”—it didn’t take long to realize that my relationship to these people wouldn’t be, uh, strictly professional. I didn’t want to simply report on the scene from a distance. I felt like I was one of them, and knew instantly that these were birds of the same feather I’d grown up with, of my father’s ilk. As it turned out, I’d come to learn that Ram Dass himself was friends with Rebs Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schacter-Shalomi—major influences in this scene.

Besides, I’d already broken rule number one (don’t get high with your sources) when I took a hit of the freshly rolled spliff Aaron had just sparked to keep himself occupied as he dutifully began rolling another spliff for everyone else. I spent the rest of the night slightly cross-faded, hanging out with old friends for the first time.

How could so many disparate things in the world actually be One?

Remembering I had an assignment for school, I took in the scene. A balding, gap-toothed fellow paced anxiously around the apartment, while another guy in an oversize, white-collared shirt and messy ponytail lounged on the couch, and someone else fuddled with the TV remote, opting to play some Bob Marley from a music channel.

I exchanged an empty glance with the guy on the couch. He and I were the only ones not really doing anything, or at least pretending to. “I feel useless,” I said. “Can I help somehow?” Yitzchak had begun to mix salmon with kale and sweet potatoes in a pot. He turned to me. “It’s okay, you’re in Shabbos mode now.” It wasn’t until Rishe arrived on the scene that things really got going, as she brought with her some fixings for the meal, and a sense of order to the place, giving direction in her thick Australian accent.

I’d been there since around 5, and now it was 9 p.m., and still we hadn’t eaten. Yitzchak had finished his cooking duties and disappeared for a while. Dinner was prepared and waiting on the kitchen island, with an assortment of challahs. Finally Yitzchak reappeared carrying a small vial of what looked like olive oil.

Aaron switched the music channel to traditional Shabbos niggunim, and a video of a Chasidish rabbi superimposed upon a yellow heavenlike background played from the television. The commotion that had permeated the space for the past few hours settled into a stillness, everyone captivated. Even the constant puffing on joints went on hiatus. Yitzchak stood over the makeshift Shabbos candles (i.e., reappropriated birthday candles) with his eyes closed, eyebrows furrowed, rocking back and forth, leading the prayers in song. I’d seen this type of trancelike state in the HinJew scene, but growing up I had never seen it in Jewish spaces. When it came time to bless the wine, Yitzchak rolled a joint, as well. And following the blessing for challah, he opened the vial of what wasn’t olive oil, but cannabis oil to use as a dip. By the time everyone began eating, Aaron switched the music channel, which had been turned off during the ritual, to Simon & Garfunkel.

Despite the fact that no one here was expected to be “keeping Shabbos,” at least halachically speaking, there was no way I could whip out my computer, which I’d been carrying with me in a worn-out black zippered designer bag, to match my knee-length flowy black dress, black tights, and chunky, black, heeled boots. I was tempted to try for a brief interview with someone there, take notes, holding out whatever hope was left, if it ever existed, for me to play the role of objective reporter, but it just wasn’t the vibe; that ship had sailed farther and farther away with each sip of wine. It was Shabbos after all. Work is prohibited on Shabbos. I was fully participating in the ritual, in the sacred container of time, as a Jew, as much as anyone else there.

Still, as I was meeting people who’d arrived for dinner and asked who I was, I explained that I was a journalism student curious about the use of intoxicants in Judaism. “We call them plant medicines,” a middle-aged woman with glittery eyeshadow softly corrected me. “The medicine” indeed was running through the veins of the community.

My heart was so full when I returned home that night; something special had occurred, and we all knew it. I sent Yoseph a message in gratitude for the introduction. “Oh good,” he wrote back “No one parties and unparties like Aaron Genuth.” I wrote back that I was beginning to see that. Then he somehow figured it out. I hadn’t even figured it out yet. “... you didn’t fall in love, did you?” he asked. “We all make that mistake (sigh). He’s like a prince in that way ...”

In the coming months, I found myself smoking spliffs at Mets games, even though I didn’t even follow baseball; accepting invites to Shabbos dinners in Brooklyn or downtown city hangs; barhopping on sticky summer weeknights after I graduated J-school with Aaron and friends he introduced me to.

There was one time Aaron and I switched phone chargers by accident, so I went to meet up with him in Bed-Stuy to make the exchange. He was coming down from an acid trip with a friend, and by the time I had gotten to his friend’s house, a light rain had cleared. The charger was at his apartment, a short bike ride away, so in the sweet, crisp air, the reflection of street lamps glistening on the wet, empty pavement, Aaron gave me the seat of the bicycle so I could wrap my arms around him as he pedaled standing up in front of me. This would be cute if I actually liked him, I thought to myself.

And yet, there I was falling in love.

Aaron had eight years on me. He was skinny and scruffy, handsome and haimish, charismatic and compelling. He smoked spliffs on almost an hourly basis, tripped on what seemed like, back then, an almost weekly basis, and had a reputation for dating models and fashionistas. From the limited perspective of my fresh and curious 23-year-old self, Aaron bore the wear and tear of his dedication to partying and to anti-capitalism. I admired his values and was greatly influenced by his perspectives—but his lifestyle to me was as nerve-wracking as it was fun. He came from a traditionally Orthodox family, originally from LA, but moved to the ultra-Orthodox suburb of Monsey after his bar mitzvah. Like the handful of Jewish bad boys I’d come to fall for, he got into psychedelics, along with other mind-altering compounds, and was kicked out of multiple yeshivas—despite being the smartest person in the room. He took a practice LSAT once, and got an almost perfect score on the first shot. In the course of the seven-year process of me writing this book, he got arrested for possession of every psychedelic under the sun; and classic to his mazal, had the case dismissed.

On paper, I didn’t think he was a practical option, at least at first. He lived on the edge—too much edge to handle for my own nervous system (and all the trauma I had from my mother threatening us with homelessness). And yet, I was deeply drawn to him anyway. He had a heart of gold, and was one of the most principled people I knew. He was a true feminist, an activist, and obviously we shared the belief that all drugs should be decriminalized. We also both loved being Jewish—and shared a similar sense of religiosity, despite coming from disparate levels of observance.

He was often by my side as I gained exposure to the type of ecstatic Judaism—all of us up till the wee hours of the morning, singing, dancing, clapping our hands, farbrenging. I was led to wonder: If my parents—especially my father—had experienced Judaism like this, would they have gotten more into Chasidis?

There are so many tales, so many moments of ritualistic rhapsody that have colored the past decade for me, especially in New York and Israel. One in particular was Baruch’s birthday at what became a notorious, three-story Park Slope brownstone on Lincoln Place, rented by an often-absent friend of the chevra who let everyone live, party, and hold prayer there. A student of Reb Zalman who had grown up with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Baruch had just gotten back into town from a “biodynamic” farm in Northern California. Everyone went wild at his birthday Shabbos party, linking arms in a circle to dance ecstatically, singing niggunim together, nearly out of breath from bouncing up and down so much.

In the middle of the party, Aaron led me upstairs for a breather. Dappled light from a streetlamp outside poured through the window into the dark room, our backs on the bed, legs dangling over its ledge as he explained to me a theory of how the shape of a baseball diamond is based on Kabbalah. (Like the men on my mother’s side of the family, he was a die-hard Mets fan, always rooting for the underdog.) It all felt especially ecstatic, maybe also because earlier that night, Aaron offered for me to dip my fingertip into a plate of molly powder that was going around to a select few. But it wasn’t really the molly; this was the vibe around that time in general, even in moments of calm.

There was something so open and nonjudgmental about this chevra, simultaneously both familiar and familial: the way people related to each other, quibbled, laughed, coexisted, came together over Shabbos and the chagim, and even became romantically entangled amid a web of incest that was like a dysfunctional family. It felt like the satsang.

One thing led to another, and Aaron and I had an on-and-off fling over the course of almost two years that led to us dating for several more. But because we had a personal relationship, I felt, according to my journalistic ethics, that I couldn’t, shouldn’t, feature him as a source in any article I might write about Judaism and psychedelics. Plus, I thought there was something sacred about the underground—and wanted to keep it that way. Not until we broke up did I feel I could mention him and his community organizing work, when relevant, in a few first-person articles.

To his credit, Aaron understood the NYC media scene very well—as well as he grasped the haimish underground. His dynamic sensibilities and multifaceted Gemini nature were part of why we got along so well.

The Jewish counterculture lit me up. Aaron had shepherded me into his world, giving me a strong foundation from which to understand the ideas and experiences I’d come to navigate as I sought to more deeply understand the essence of what it is to be a Magic Jew.

Excerpted from “Exile & Ecstasy: Growing Up with Ram Dass and Coming of Age in the Jewish Psychedelic Underground” by Madison Margolin, published by Hay House, Inc. Copyright © 2023.

Madison Margolin is a journalist living in New York. She specializes in writing about Jewish culture and drug policy.