Cropped from the cov­er of Ashke­nazi Herbalism

If the term kin­na­her­ra” sounds famil­iar to you, you have inher­it­ed a ves­tige from the bygone era of Ashke­nazi folk med­i­cine. Kin­na­her­ra” is a whis­per-down-the-lane ver­sion of the Yid­dish kayn ayn hore, which in Eng­lish means no evil eye,” a phrase his­tor­i­cal­ly invoked as a good luck charm against curses.

In East­ern Europe over the cen­turies, many ail­ments have been attrib­uted to the evil eye, among them skin afflic­tions, diges­tive com­plaints, wast­ing ill­ness­es, and fear or anx­i­ety. With­in Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in the vil­lages and mar­ket towns (or shtetls) of the Pale of Set­tle­ment, spe­cial­ists were often called in to treat the dis­or­ders. These Jew­ish folk heal­ers were gen­er­al­ly known as bobehs, mean­ing grand­moth­ers,’ or opsh­prekherins, mean­ing exor­cists.’ They were typ­i­cal­ly old­er women who were under­stood to cure their patients with whis­pered charms, secret rit­u­als, and herbs. Their rep­u­ta­tions could be far-reach­ing, and some­times peo­ple would trav­el hun­dreds of miles for their services.

I didn’t know any of this when I began my stud­ies in Euro­pean herbal­ism. Sure, my fam­i­ly pep­pered our con­ver­sa­tions with the occa­sion­al kin­na­her­ra,” savored chick­en soup in order to com­bat colds, and offered zey gezunts to sneez­ers with­in earshot. But that was the extent of my knowl­edge when it came to my Ashke­nazi ances­tors’ heal­ing prac­tices. So when teach­ers at the herbal­ism school where I’d enrolled encour­aged us to check out the herbal lega­cies of our fore­bears, I was excit­ed at the prospect of research­ing what I assumed would be a trove of infor­ma­tion regard­ing the plant-relat­ed reme­dies of the Jews of the Pale. After all, I had been a ref­er­ence librar­i­an for many years and it seemed log­i­cal to me that this part of med­ical his­to­ry would have been a top­ic of exten­sive schol­ar­ship, like so many oth­er aspects of Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture in East­ern Europe. As it turned out, I could find noth­ing regard­ing plant reme­dies among Ashke­nazi Jews, espe­cial­ly from the turn of the twen­ti­eth century.

There are sev­er­al rea­sons for the regret­table dearth of schol­ar­ship on folk med­i­cine among the Pale’s Ashke­naz­im. There is the prob­lem of rely­ing on texts from any num­ber of lan­guages such as Yid­dish, Hebrew, Pol­ish, Russ­ian, Ukrain­ian, Ger­man, and oth­ers as well, all the while search­ing for fugi­tive ref­er­ences to knowl­edge and prac­tices that even your sources may not have ful­ly under­stood. Along with the lan­guage bar­ri­ers, the dec­i­ma­tion of Europe’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in the Shoah makes research next to impos­si­ble. And yet, per­haps the most over­looked road­block to dis­cov­er­ing our ances­tors’ heal­ing prac­tices is the fact that most of the folk heal­ers in the shtetls and vil­lages of East­ern Europe were women, and women are noto­ri­ous­ly invis­i­ble in accounts of the Jew­ish Pale.

Per­haps the most over­looked road­block to dis­cov­er­ing our ances­tors’ heal­ing prac­tices is the fact that most of the folk heal­ers in the shtetls and vil­lages of East­ern Europe were women, and women are noto­ri­ous­ly invis­i­ble in accounts of the Jew­ish Pale.

This is not unique to Ashke­naz­im. As stud­ies have point­ed out, women’s lives have always been rel­e­gat­ed to the mar­gins of the writ­ten record; by focus­ing on the mar­gins of schol­ar­ship — the foot­notes and the appen­dices, amongst the mea­sured respon­sa (rab­bini­cal rul­ings) and between lines of learned ped­a­gogy — I was able to locate those places where the most fas­ci­nat­ing aspects of our col­lec­tive sto­ries linger. These are the realms where my first research break­throughs occurred and they are the places I’ve returned to again and again to retrieve long-lost frag­ments of our heal­ing traditions.

My very first dis­cov­ery came from obses­sion and intu­ition, in the form of a mimeo­graphed arti­fact of the Cold War that I had locat­ed ear­ly on in my research. This doc­u­ment was osten­si­bly an eth­nob­otan­i­cal sur­vey of the inter­war Sovi­et Union that I read and reread count­less times for its some­what bewil­der­ing reportage of the plant med­i­cine known to folk heal­ers in a region where I believed my great-grand­par­ents had emi­grat­ed from. How­ev­er detailed this pub­li­ca­tion appeared, it nev­er explic­it­ly iden­ti­fies the pop­u­la­tions who were sur­veyed for their herbal knowledge.

About a year into my stud­ies — on a whim — I decid­ed to research the towns in the mimeograph’s appen­dices that indi­cat­ed where the orig­i­nal field­work had been con­duct­ed. As I went through them, a strange pat­tern began to emerge. For a major­i­ty of loca­tions on the list, the hits that came up were detailed accounts of each one’s Askhenazi past, right up through their destruc­tion in World War II; the towns where the herbal infor­mants lived were Jew­ish shtetls and vil­lages of the Pale.

I then threw myself into a six-month review of the towns list­ed in the appen­dix; this includ­ed find­ing his­tor­i­cal place-name changes, ascer­tain­ing geo­graph­ic loca­tions, and com­pil­ing com­par­a­tive pop­u­la­tion demo­graph­ics. My method­i­cal analy­sis led to the uncov­er­ing of a hid­den herbal (a mate­ria med­ica elicit­ed from anonymized but large­ly Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties of inter­war Ukraine); you can read more on this in Ashke­nazi Herbal­isms chap­ter on the Mate­ria Medica.

It quick­ly became obvi­ous, how­ev­er, that the sto­ries of the heal­ers them­selves — not only the opsh­prekherins and bobehs—but the many Jew­ish prac­ti­tion­ers who flour­ished through­out their his­to­ry in East­ern Europe, would have to be told, and this is where the real research began. For instance, I encoun­tered opsphrekherins, bobehs, and mid­wives, such as Fayge di bobe and Sore Mord­khe-Yoy­sef, Shana Gitl and Beila of Zamość, along with many oth­er heal­ers of the towns and vil­lages of the Pale.

For­tu­nate­ly, the road to Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism has not been a solo jour­ney. My hus­band Adam joined me on this quest, and what we have found is that there is much more to be dis­cov­ered. The clues of an herbal lega­cy among the Ashke­naz­im are a dias­po­ra in their own right: tiny sparks amidst the enor­mous body of lit­er­a­ture ded­i­cat­ed to the his­to­ry of the Jews of the Pale of Set­tle­ment. Two such impor­tant sources that have been pub­lished recent­ly in Eng­lish are Mem­oirs of a Grand­moth­er by Pauline Wengeroff, and There Once Was a World: A Nine-Hun­dred-Year Chron­i­cle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok by Yaf­fa Eliach.

For those who would like a peek at the tip of an ancient ice­berg, the YIVO Ency­clo­pe­dia of Jews in East­ern Europe pro­vides this entry. Addi­tion­al­ly, the col­lec­tion of over twelve hun­dred yizkor books, ded­i­cat­ed to the mem­o­ries of the lost com­mu­ni­ties of the Pale, can yield more spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion. Most of these books are still in the orig­i­nal Yid­dish and Hebrew, but the geneal­o­gy web­site, jew​ish​gen​.org, has under­tak­en a mon­u­men­tal trans­la­tion project that can be found here.

Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism is the begin­ning of a recon­struc­tion of a long for­got­ten cor­ner of Ashke­nazi his­to­ry. Our research has tak­en us on a sur­pris­ing jour­ney with many unex­pect­ed turns and we can’t wait to share them with you.

Deatra Cohen is a for­mer ref­er­ence librar­i­an, is a clin­i­cal herbal­ist who trained with the Berke­ley (for­mer­ly Ohlone) Herbal Cen­ter, belongs to a West­ern Clin­i­cal Herbal col­lec­tive, and is a Mas­ter Gar­den­er at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia. In her research, Cohen became frus­trat­ed with the lack of prac­ti­cal infor­ma­tion avail­able to Jews of Ashke­nazi descent, and relat­ed to East­ern Euro­pean tra­di­tions in gen­er­al. Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism was writ­ten to rec­on­cile this lack, and the first work in any lan­guage to doc­u­ment the herbal prac­tices of Ashke­nazi Jews.