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 Herbalism’s 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, jewishgen.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.