Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism: Redis­cov­er­ing the Herbal Tra­di­tions of East­ern Euro­pean Jews

Deatra Cohen, Adam Siegel

  • Review
By – June 28, 2021

Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel add a new dimen­sion to our pic­ture of every­day life in the Pale of Set­tle­ment with a high­ly read­able por­tray­al of folk heal­ers, herbs, and med­i­c­i­nal prac­tices. Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism offers not only the first botan­i­cal descrip­tion of Jew­ish plant and herb use in East­ern Europe from the eigh­teenth into the ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry, but also so much more.

Part I presents these two librar­i­ans’ dis­cov­er­ies about Jew­ish for­mal and folk med­ical prac­tice in the part of the Rus­sia Empire that is now Ukraine, a sub­ject rarely doc­u­ment­ed in print dur­ing that time or after. Through archival pho­tographs from the An-Sky expe­di­tions, a botan­i­cal field study under­tak­en by the Sovi­et gov­ern­ment (which includ­ed, but nev­er acknowl­edged, Jews), mem­oirs, and inter­views with descen­dants, the authors found doc­u­men­ta­tion that counter mis­con­cep­tions of shtetl back­ward­ness and illit­er­a­cy. Their book details types of male health prac­ti­tion­ers over three cen­turies — the ba’alei shem (itin­er­ant Kab­bal­ists), trained physi­cians, feld­sh­er (mil­i­tary bar­ber-sur­geons), and heal­ers — along with their edu­ca­tion and the med­ical hand­books they ref­er­enced. They iden­ti­fy two pub­lished rem­e­dy books writ­ten by Jews in the 1700s and report, as more evi­dence of lit­er­a­cy, that two clas­sic Euro­pean guides were trans­lat­ed into Hebrew and Yid­dish and housed on shelves in phar­ma­cies, where both Jews and non-Jews gath­ered to share information.

Reli­gious doc­trine, cit­ing the impor­tant Jew­ish mitz­vahs of sav­ing a life and tikkun olam allowed for sec­u­lar med­ical treat­ments in those days, although writ­ten charms to thwart the evil eye” might also be inter­wo­ven. It was a world of men, where births of females were not even reg­is­tered. How­ev­er, find­ing descrip­tions of a mid­wife at work in the only pub­lished mem­oir of a woman from the Pale of Set­tle­ment,” helped Cohen and Siegel make their case for the pres­ence of com­pe­tent, respect­ed female heal­ers, too. The his­tor­i­cal back­ground on region­al heal­ers they present in Part I works hand-in-hand with their detailed descrip­tion of the heal­ing prop­er­ties of spe­cif­ic plants in the mate­ria med­ica that fol­lows, the cen­ter­piece of Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism.

Cohen and Siegel begin Part II with a caveat that infor­ma­tion in Mate­ria Med­ica is to be used only for his­tor­i­cal and ethno­graph­ic pur­pos­es, not as a prac­ti­cal guide. In fact, they pro­vide only one recipe (from the past and with­out pro­por­tions), but in this sec­tion the authors describe the char­ac­ter­is­tics, loca­tions, parts of the plant used, and the mul­ti­ple heal­ing uses of twen­ty-six herbs iden­ti­fied as essen­tial. With per­son­al­i­ty, they revis­it and fit into place peo­ple and source names from the more schol­ar­ly first section.

Indi­vid­ual plant entries, some run­ning ten pages, begin with beau­ti­ful line draw­ings by Cohen. The cat­a­logu­ing of every­day ail­ments is cap­ti­vat­ing: white clover to stop post­na­tal hem­or­rhage; sting­ing net­tle stalks rubbed on aching bod­ies for colds and rheuma­tism; nut­meg for sex­u­al con­cerns and diar­rhea; plan­tain as a gar­gle for influen­za; and straw­ber­ries for kid­ney dis­ease and whoop­ing cough. This mate­ria med­ica is an ency­clo­pe­dia of a spe­cif­ic time in and of itself. Local non-Jew­ish treat­ments con­trast those by Ashke­nazi Jews, which often men­tion spe­cif­ic towns. The authors iden­ti­fy plants with Latin names and com­mon names in Eng­lish, Hebrew, Yid­dish, and in five lan­guages spo­ken by non-Jew­ish neighbors.

By fol­low­ing clues about Jew­ish herbal med­i­cine where few exist­ed and pre­sent­ing what they found so pro­fes­sion­al­ly, Cohen and Siegel have designed an engag­ing new ref­er­ence. Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism not only answers the ques­tion What did Jews have from the Old Coun­try to keep them­selves resilient besides chick­en soup?” — but forges new foot­paths toward ques­tions that still need to be answered.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er and a school librar­i­an for forty years in NYC, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

Discussion Questions