madison margolin
Madison in Tzfat, Israel, when writing "Exile & Ecstasy" | Photo by David Morgan

A Journey Into New York’s Jewish Psychedelic Counterculture and the Hasidic Underground

Madison Margolin’s book Exile & Ecstasy explores the connection between Jewish and psychedelic worlds

DoubleBlind Mag

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The phrase “Be here now” is so often repeated that it’s become almost cliché. But for Jewish psychedelic journalist and co-founder of DoubleBlind Magazine, Madison Margolin, this mindful mantra and the community that birthed it – including Ram Dass and her father – are integral threads of her life’s tapestry. In her new book, Exile & Ecstacy, which will be published in November, Margolin invites the reader to swim with her in the psychedelic sea that flows between the Ram Dass movement and Chassidism (the branch of Jewish spirituality that arose in the 18th century in Eastern Europe). 

While a good storyteller recounts their own tales, a great one opens up those stories so that they belong to all of us. After being riveted by an early copy of Exile & Ecstacy, I sat down with Margolin to talk about her homecoming journey in New York’s psychedelic Chassidic underground, and to continue to steep with her in the biggest questions: ancestral trauma, intimacy with oneself and with the One who made us, and of course, the intersection between Judaism and the psychedelic experience.

"Exile & Ecstasy" by Madison Margolin book cover

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Ariel Hendelman: Can we have ecstasy without exile?

Madison Margolin: That depends on how you define ecstasy. I think yes, on a superficial level and no, on a sustained, spiritual level. It’s like the whole Ram Dass trip: He came up and he came down so many times. You can’t reproduce the high or the spiritual experience, but you can have sustained contentment and joy, which also comes from being able to work for it. I see it in Hebrew as osher verses simcha. Simcha is joy or happiness, it can be an acute experience. Whereas osher feels like the joy that you get when you have a baby – it’s grounded and hard and not glamorous, but it’s so deep-seated. Simcha is more of the peak experience, like you’re at a wedding.

Hendelman: That’s a great analogy. One is coming from the outside in, and the other from the inside out.

Margolin: Totally.

Hendelman: This connects to a line you wrote in the book, “The discipline to be free is what psychedelic integration is about, and it’s the practice of integration that keeps life psychedelic.” I love this. Can you expound on it more?

Margolin: I don’t think living a psychedelic life means you need to go to Burning Man, or that you’re tripping once a year or once a week. Doing psychedelics doesn’t make your life psychedelic, per se, and the same goes for working in the psychedelic industry. A life that is psychedelic is informed by the ethos and the lessons of psychedelics, and therefore expresses and reflects that in daily, sober, integrated actions. How many of us trip and then think, I should drink more water, or get back into yoga, or journal every day? It’s about living according to the things that psychedelics teach us. Before we run back to the medicine, have we tried the things it’s telling us to do?

Hendelman: Once you get the message, you can hang up the phone and continue the conversation by living your life.

Margolin: Exactly, and we can always come back for more information. But first we have to apply it. Part of integration for me is taking a souvenir from the psychedelic experience, extracting it, and applying it to my everyday life. The first few times I played with my hula-hoop, I was rolling on Molly [MDMA] at raves in college. Afterwards, I found that I had this somatic memory of those experiences that was triggered by my hula-hoop. Now, I can hoop anywhere, preferably sober actually. But it’s kissed with the medicine. It’s the same with Shabbos [the Jewish Sabbath]. I had done ayahuasca on Shabbos, which woke me up to the magnitude of the Shabbos energy, its essence as a container of sacred time (in a transcendent, timeless sort of way), and this warm blanket feeling. I was able to continue to feel that on Shabbos while not being on medicine because I was with the same community and the same music. Now, for me, the practice of Shabbos and this particular sacred container of time holds and integrates the consciousness of the medicine. As Jews, we’re lucky to have such frameworks like the holidays and Shabbat that are built into life. The rhythm of the Jewish calendar gives a lot of integration opportunities. I don’t wrap tefillin, but I would imagine that for those who have while they’re tripping, that becomes an embodied practice that can carry the medicine when they’re not tripping. That holds true for any embodied practice like using essential oils or dancing. That’s also why listening to music from a journey is a great integration technique.

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Hendelman: Yeah, definitely. You write a lot about the embodied act of prayer in the book from within your hula-hoop, which could represent the sacred cycling of the calendar or of journey and integration. I’m wondering if, after writing about it, the experience of being with your hula-hoop has changed at all?

Margolin: I haven’t thought about it like that really. It’s more like, oh there’s the hula-hoop again and now it’s on the cover of my book. The hoop is such a natural extension of me; it comes with me wherever I go. It’s really there for me. When I’ve tripped before and have felt uncomfortable, just having it near me or sitting in the middle of it gives me a sense of protection. Also, when I’m hooping, I really need a lot of space around me. No one can come near. It’s a really cool way of spending time with myself and God. So I don’t know if my experience with it has changed since I wrote about it, but it’s certainly a character in my life.

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Hendelman: In the epilogue, you confess to essentially rewriting the whole book in Tzfat in a few weeks. Can you talk about your writing process?

Margolin: When I first started the book, there was a whole chapter that my editor suggested I delete. It was all about the stuff everybody expects to read about, like how Acacia has DMT in it, and how that may have played a part in the incident of the burning bush – all these instances of plant medicine in Torah. But it’s the obvious stuff, and not everyone who takes DMT is a prophet. Entheogenic substances are a natural part of humanity and they show up in every culture – shocker, or not. 

Also, when I started interviewing psychedelic Jews who I was interested in talking to, I realized that I felt very comfortable. I wanted to be friends with them. I was finding the communities where I wanted to spend Shabbos in a way that I had never experienced before and I realized, “I am one of these people.” As a journalist, you always have one foot in and one foot out, but even with that observer cap on, I was experiencing as much as anyone else because when you’re Jewish and you’re writing about things that are so personal like the relationship to God and how that relates to the psychedelic experience, there is no way to pretend like such topics don’t also apply to you. So I used myself as a character in the story and tried to write the book in a way that would be relatable to people. Especially to a particular generation and community, so that someone like you could read it and say, “Oh, I know that vibe that she’s describing.” I really wanted to capture the zeitgeist because it’s so fleeting in a way. 

Then there was the more personal stuff about my parents and childhood that I always knew I would write about. I used to joke that if I had to go through that shit, I might as well write about it. The stuff about my parents’ divorce was very vulnerable to write, but no one would understand me in a holistic way without knowing that background. The blending of personal and communal was important; weaving my personal story with this community that I fell into. 

In terms of taking up space, hula-hooping takes up a lot of space. As my mom pointed out when I was in high school and struggling with an eating disorder, anorexics don’t want to take up space. I was in a situation where I was trying to make myself small in order to deal with all of the chaos around me and not wanting to make it worse. I ended up embodying that. Thank God I’m not dealing with that so much anymore, but I thought it was an important thing to bring up because it gives others permission to acknowledge it in themselves if they are struggling with the same thing.

Hendelman: You write very honestly in the book about many subjects, including your parents. I really enjoyed the anecdotes about your dad and getting to know him through your eyes in all of the complexity. He seems like a chassid (devotee) of Maharaji and that in some way informs your love and appreciation for Chassidus (the devotional and mystical aspect of Judaism).

Margolin: A thousand percent. My dad is a chassid in general, a true Baal Shem Tov style chassid. He seeks a direct, unmediated relationship to God, just as the Baal Shem Tov—the founder of Chassidic Judaism—encouraged in his followers. He just wants to be close to God. Maharaji is his Rebbe, definitely, and he is a real devotee. So I grew up with a very clear concept and understanding of Chassidus, although not in the traditional sense. But I think I have a closer concept of it than a secular Jew who’s never experienced any of it.

Hendelman: There is this cliff-hanger moment in the book when you’re conducting your first interview with “psychedelic Jews” and you ask them if it’s possible to have a Jewish psychedelic experience. Did they answer you?

Margolin: What happened was, that was my very first story for journalism school. I didn’t focus on psychedelics because that felt way too controversial. I ended up writing an off the derech(OTD) profile on Benzy. The focus of the interview wasn’t about that because that wasn’t the focus of the story. When I returned to it in my second semester, I felt like I could write about the subject of psychedelics, and that’s when I got connected to Aaron Genuth and Yoseph Needleman, and all those people. I was just describing what these “psychedelic Jews” were like and what the practice was like. I kept writing the story in different iterations. I interviewed someone who told me that he would see Stars of David when he tripped. That’s not what Judaism is about necessarily, but the fact that that imagery was informing the visuals is profound. 

I have definitely asked that question about a Jewish psychedelic experience, but I don’t think anyone has ever really answered it. Maybe my book is the answer. 

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Hendelman: I love that. Inherent within this subject is its shadow, like the way you describe a bunch of guys zonked out on ketamine. Yet you write in a way that makes it seem like you don’t distinguish between “hard drugs” like heroin or meth, and entheogens like psilocybin and LSD. In terms of addictive potential, they’re not at all the same. Is there a way to distinguish between these substances meaningfully and with nuance?

Margolin: I would not put acid or MDMA in the same category as heroin or meth, but I think this “good drug / bad drug” binary is a false one. I saw a lot of people from the Chassidic psychedelic fringe end up on heroin. Especially for people who don’t have drug education growing up, the world of drugs seems cool and they want to try them all. I was describing this indiscriminate mindset of “just give me drugs.” I think also the more conservative forces just see drugs as drugs, regardless of whether it’s acid or heroin. I have friends who have been addicted to meth and heroin for many years, but are also major psychonauts. We tend to have this false belief that hard drug users are not psychedelic people, or that psychedelic people don’t do the heavier stuff. But even people like Dennis Peron, who was one of the leading activists in legalizing Cannabis in the 90s in California and an AIDS patient, was also into meth. There’s a lot more overlap than we might think. Carl Hart described it to me like this, “Are you still meeting your responsibilities? Are you being a good person in the world by not infringing on other people’s pursuit of happiness?” All the blanket statements and assumptions we might make – it would be wise to challenge them. 

Hendelman: We’re having this conversation in the Hebrew month of Elul—the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. You write in your book, “Teshuvah [returning] is the recalibration of consciousness.” That’s gorgeous and feels so resonant to this time we’re in. 

Margolin: I don’t know where I got that quote from. I sometimes write quotes down in the front flap of my journal from things people have said to me. But it’s about being aware of the way your consciousness is organized and how you prioritize information. With intention, to notice what is primarily on your mind and the patterns with which you’re thinking about it, and then to redirect it. Rebbe Nachman, the 18th century Chassidic Master, says something about the mind being like a horse that we can rein back in. It’s within our power, but we have to be aware. What we are coming home to is not the mind, but the observer of the mind. There are different words for it, but it’s that grounded, transcendent consciousness of the soul that we come back to. When we can identify with that rather than the mind, then we are returning home. For me, it’s the neshama [soul] because that’s a piece of God and God is the ultimate home in all senses. 

Hendelman: I would love to see more meditation happening in medicine spaces. Integration can happen simultaneously with the journey when mindfulness is the container.

Margolin: Yes to that, as well as to what we might call prayer. If it’s a prayer ceremony, then the prayer becomes the integration. Ayahuasca taught me how to pray in ways that I hadn’t experienced before. The practice of prayer was my souvenir from the psychedelic experience. That also happened on MDMA. I was on a camping trip and I got a call that my mom was in the hospital. She was fine, thank God, but I was freaking out and was already rolling when I got the call. When I hung up the phone, I went out into the fields and started praying. I felt this incredible connection with the stars, as if I had a direct line from my heart to Hashem. Aaron told me afterwards that I had been shuckling [from the Yiddish word meaning “to shake” or rock back and forth in prayer] for 20 minutes. The movement of shuckling is a kind of running and returning (ratzu v’shuv in Hebrew). I write in my book that what we’re returning to is home, which is the seat of the soul. That embodied act of prayer helps to get me into a more trance-like state. 

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With ayahuasca, it’s a little different because you can feel like you’re dying. You might feel so sick and be so uncomfortable, and there is really nothing you can do but pray and hope the experience shifts. It backs you into a corner where you finally might ask God for help, or mercy, or to just return to a more comfortable state. It forces you into it in a way. Then when you start to feel better, you have so much gratitude. It’s a direct, embodied conversation with the Creator. On ayahuasca, I really focus on the breath and the reality that it could just stop at any moment. There is such vulnerability in being human. At the point where we get desperate for life is when we pray. It shouldn’t take such a drastic situation, like an accident God forbid, but we can imitate that kind of drama in the microcosm of a psychedelic experience.

Hendelman: That reminds me of DMT and how what is so often a near-death experience for folks becomes a near-life experience as well, which is also Yom Kippur—one of the most well known and severe Jewish holidays which literally means the Day of Atonement. We rehearse our own deaths and don’t engage in any life-affirming activities in order to reaffirm the wholeness of life.

Margolin: Yes and in both cases we need the embodied experience. 

Hendelman: Is that why Tzfat (the birthplace of Kabbalah in Northern Israel) is so powerful for you? You describe it as the “geographical incarnation of psychedelic Judaism.” But it’s also the city associated with the element of air.

Margolin: Well, the most basic component of any mindfulness practice is noticing the breath. And the most basic thing when you’re having a rough trip is also to focus on the breath. Having read a lot of Jewish teachings on breath and seeing the depth of what it really means to us as children of God – it’s the umbilical cord that connects us to our Maker. There is this giving, receiving, and lovemaking with God that happens through the breath. The deeper into the Torah we go on this, the trippier it gets. Also the experience of yoga or jogging; getting back in touch with yourself through the breath is psychedelic. In Tzfat, the mystical energy is palpable in the air you breathe. It’s pervasive. There is a whimsical, airy feeling in Tzfat that puts you into another realm. It’s through the breath that we ascend and descend. Being in Tzfat feels like being in a cloud of acid.

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