As a culturally and politically aware New York City teenager, I knew that there was a buzz among bohemians and literati about LSD use. That in the early 1960s artists, musicians and poets were using psychedelic drugs was not exactly news. And that some of these artists were Jews (in a city a quarter of whose population was Jewish) was not exactly news either. But as far as I could tell the Jews taking LSD were what Yiddish speakers called ‘viesser yidden’ – ‘white Jews’, as distinct from ‘Jewish Jews.’ ‘White Jews’ may have had a Jewish last name and a weakness for bagels and cream cheese but they weren’t speakers of Jewish languages or practitioners of the Jewish religion. Were any of those religious or cultural Jews, I wondered, interested in the relationship between LSD use and religious experiences?
It seemed that some were. Thus, I was very excited to hear that two Orthodox Rabbis were planning to try LSD. And they were European Rabbis who spoke, both, Yiddish and Hebrew, which somehow made them more authentic and exotic. (Yes, they would later prove to be very unorthodox Orthodox Rabbis – but that was way in the future.)
One of them, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, shared the news with me. And why did he tell me? Perhaps because he knew I would be sympathetic to his quest. My brothers and I were among the few youngsters who regularly attended the small West Side synagogue headed by Carlebach’s father (and dominated by Carlebach’s mother). He knew of my uneasy but increasing fascination with what would later be dubbed ‘the counterculture’ – and perhaps felt a kinship with a younger Orthodox Jew who shared his curiosity about what was being touted as “a chemical revolution in consciousness.”
Like both Rabbis, I was aware that some Rabbinic authorities had forbidden their followers to take drugs. (Schnapps was one thing: “better than schnapps” – as Zalman Schachter had described LDS to Timothy Leary – was another.)
But despite these prohibitions and the social stigma among Orthodox Jews about drugs these young Rabbis planned to take LSD and tell the story of their trip to me – a member of their extended community who had one foot in the emerging counterculture.
And strangest of all, they planned to ingest the LSD in a synagogue. For it was in Carlebach’s ‘shul,’ above which he and his parents lived in a modest apartment, that Rabbi Zalman Schachter decided his friend Shlomo would feel safest when the acid took effect. For Schachter’s LSD guide, Timothy Leary had made the case that each LSD experience had its ‘set’ and its ‘setting.’ And in this way he turned taking LSD into a religious ritual of its own, a ritual in which he, Leary was “High Priest” and each person who underwent the ‘sacrament’ with him was then initiated into the priesthood of chemical consciousness.
Only a few weeks before hearing the exciting but somewhat unsettling news of Schachter and Carlebach’s impending LSD adventure, I had heard a talk by one of the ‘viesser yidden’ – Richard Alpert, formerly of Harvard University’s Psychology Department – a talk in which he and Timothy Leary waxed poetic about LSD use.
Alpert and Leary had descended from the Millbrook estate in Dutchess County New York (home of the ‘International Federation for Internal Freedom’) to enlighten Manhattanites about LSD. At the meeting I attended, at the Albert Hotel in Greenwich Village, hundreds of people crowded into a small ballroom to hear tales of an impending “psychedelic revolution” which would transform America. And those who became the vanguards of that revolution were warned that they had to take the drugs in a responsible manner – the ‘setting’ of the drug experience was all important. In retrospect, I realized that there was an oddly moral tone to Leary and Alpert’s warnings about taking responsibility for one’s actions – even when ingesting a chemical that might make your actions completely unpredictable!
When I walked out of the meeting, mulling over what I had heard, I thought: nothing (except the moralizing tone) could be more distant from the Orthodox Jewish world in which I had been brought up.
And perhaps that’s what made Carlebach’s news of ‘two Rabbis tripping’ so unsettling for me. Two worlds that I had endeavored to keep apart – the NYC Bohemian world and the Orthodox Jewish world – were threatening to collide.
In the summer of 1964 I turned seventeen. I was a high school senior in a European -style boys’ Yeshiva on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. With a few friends I had co-founded ‘Frontiers,’ a literary magazine that would try to capture the cultural ferment we found ourselves in mid 1960s New York City – and it was for that magazine that I planned to publish an interview with ‘the tripping Rabbis.’
Somewhat naively, I didn’t anticipate that the school’s rabbinical authorities would have a problem with this . Later that year their opposition to modernity became clearer when they rejected a short story written and submitted by a girl (albeit a Jewish girl). It wasn’t the content of the story so much as the idea of publishing literature by a girl in a boy’s yeshiva magazine that was not possible!
In the spring of 1964, when Schachter and Carlebach planned to trip together, LSD was still a legal substance in the U.S. It was only two years later that that the State of California and then the US government would criminalize its use.
Unlike the other drugs with which it was later grouped – marijuana, heroin, cocaine – LSD use was a ‘top-down’ phenomenon. Other drugs had spread from the poor and the marginal to bohemian adventurers – and from there to wider swathes of American society. But LSD use spread from the top of the social register to the middle class – and never really reached the disenfranchised. (Poor people did not have six to eight hours to set aside for a mind-altering recreational drug experience)
For a dozen years before its criminalization in 1966, American and British elites had been sampling psychedelic drugs – including peyote, psilocybin, and LSD. Among these elites were many creative artists: Andre Previn, Anais Nin, Jack Nicholson, James Coburn, and Cary Grant.
And figures from journalism, industry and business, like Time publisher Henry Luce and his wife Claire Booth Luce, the “grand dame of post-War American politics,” were taking LSD. This may account for the fact that half a dozen positive articles about LSD appeared in Time magazine between 1955 and 1960, though, at the time, no mention of the Luces’ psychedelic experiences appeared in Time or anywhere else for that matter.
In an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1982, then eighty year old Mrs Luce said of psychedelics in the 1950s: “Oh sure, we all took acid. It was creative group – my husband and I and Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood.” Claire Booth Luce, it seemed, approved of LSD as long as its use was limited to what are now known as “the chattering classes” – the cultural and economic elites. But, she told the TV audience (some twenty years after the LSD genie was out of the bottle), “we wouldn’t want everyone doing to much of a good thing.” (Acid Dreams)
In contrast, Leary, once he and Richard Alpert were ejected from the Harvard Psychology Department, couldn’t have ‘too much of a good thing.’ Leary was determined to open the “doors of perception” (in the Blakean language used by Aldous Huxley in his influential tract on psychedelics) to everyone. But Leary, too, started with elites – academic, artistic and cultural. And it was as a professor of Religious Studies that Schachter gained entry to Leary’s ever-expanding inner circle.
It was in his talk at the Albert Hotel and in his writings on LSD use that Leary emphasized the importance of ‘setting’ regarding the psychedelic experience. The place in which one takes the drug, Leary wrote, should be “as free as possible from unforeseen distractions and intrusions. The voyager should make sure that he will not be disturbed; visitors or a phone call will often jar him into hallucinatory activity. Trust in the surroundings and privacy are necessary.”
A subject’s initial ‘voyage,’ according to Leary , should be led by a ” psychedelic guide… who needs “to be there, relaxed, solid, accepting, secure, to sense all and do nothing except let the subject know his wise presence. A psychedelic session lasts up to twelve hours and produces moments of intense, intense, INTENSE reactivity. The guide must never be bored, talkative, intellectualizing. He must remain calm during long periods of swirling mindlessness…To administer psychedelics without personal experience is unethical and dangerous. Our studies concluded that almost every negative LSD reaction has been caused by the guide’s fear, which augmented the transient fear of the subject.”
In 1962 Leary had been Schachter’s guide, and now two years later, Schachter would guide Shlomo Carlebach on his voyage. At this point in time, I would be neither guide nor voyager, but a chronicler of their interaction. I anticipated their ‘trip’ as if were my own, and I could barely wait until later that summer when I could record their ‘return to planet earth’ from the far reaches of altered consciousness.
In the mid-1960s Rabbis Schachter and Carlebach were in the first circle, the Millbrook circle, from which LSD spread to bohemia, especially to the Beats of New York and California.
Within a scant three years of Leary’s declaration that he and his associates sought to ‘turn on America’ thousands of Americans took LSD, and by late 1965 that previously unavailable substance was ingested by many in the bohemian enclaves of New York and San Francisco. From the Millbrook Estate in Upstate New York Leary preached the gospel of expanded consciousness and sent out ‘disciples’ to turn on the masses.
Thus, LSD use moved from the moneyed elites of corporations and the academy, to the denizens of Bohemian neighborhoods, like Greenwich Village, North Beach, and later Haight –Ashbury, neighborhoods which were “the initial breeding ground for the large -scale use of psychedelics.” (Acid Dreams)
And along with the LSD on blotter paper or sugar cubes came a set of expectations, one might almost say a theology, about the import of the psychedelic experience. For Leary and his associates had packaged their campaign to promote LSD use in an exotic cultural and religious framework—that of Eastern religions in general and of Hinduism and Buddhism in particular.
To solidify that identification between psychedelics and Eastern religions Leary, Alpert and Metzner wrote: The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. They weren’t the first to assert that the LSD experience was fundamentally a mystical one. The link between psychedelics and mysticism and the connection to the Tibetan Book of the Dead text was first made by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, published in 1957.
But for Zalman Schachter and Shlomo Carlebach, Jewish texts – and not Tibetan ones – were the primary lens through which they would understand their psychedelic experiences.
In my conversation with the two Rabbis, a conversation conducted as their LSD trip ended, Zalman did most of the talking, speaking in a mixture of English, Yiddish, and Hebrew that could only be described as ‘Yeshivish,’ or Yeshiva language. I imagine that Schachter must have been relieved to speak of his trip in his “own language.”
In his own account of his guided trip with Leary, a trip conducted at the Ananda Ashram in Millbrook, Zalman noted that “as Leary knew no Yiddish, I found myself in a situation where I could not express myself at the gut level…In other words, the experience became too cerebral because it was necessary to translate. A direct dialogue was not possible.” (My Life in Jewish Renewal)
Uneasy about subjecting Carlebach to the same strangeness that he had felt during his trip with Leary, Schachter made sure that Carlebach’s trip would take place in as safe a place as possible – in his family’s own synagogue – and that he would be guided by someone who knew his language and the world of his religious symbols.
With Carlebach, Schachter shared a profound knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew, as well as a common ground of kabbalistic and Hasidic references. Direct dialogue was possible. And as an observer, one who came from a similar, although not identical cultural world, I could follow the ‘Yeshivish’ descriptions of their trip.
The most often repeated description of which was ‘gevaldik’ or ‘awe-inpiring.’
Schachter spoke to me of ‘aliyat haneshamah,’ ‘the ascent of the soul,’ an experience related by Jewish mystics of the past, among them Kabbalists and Hasidic masters.
And they both spoke of encountering angels and other celestial beings.
Between his ‘guided tour’ with Leary and assuming the role of guide for Carlebach, Schachter recorded his reactions to that first trip:
“I started to read some Hasidic material in order to see whether any parallel with LSD experience stood out; I found there were many. Things I had read and passed over before now took on a new psychedelic dimension.”
Those parallels would fuel his creative impulses and those of musician Shlomo Carlebach for decades to come.
Shalom Goldman is a professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University. His most recent book is Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (UNC Press, January, 2010).