You may have heard of Berdichev, or Berdychiv as it is known today. Its lore among the Chabad community is legendary due to the reknowned Rabbi Levi Yitzchak (1740-1809) who established his chassidic court there. Since his time, thousands of his followers throughout the world have flocked to his synagogue for inspiration and guidance. While the religious leaders of Barditchev (as it was called in Yiddish) are well-documented, few are aware of the Ashkenazi herbalists who also thrived for centuries in this "epitome of a Jewish city."
Jews were first documented in Barditchev in 1593 but it wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that the site became one of the main Jewish centers of Ukraine. By 1721, records show that a significant Jewish community had settled there, eventually earning the town the esteemed title, “Jerusalem of Volhynia.” As the 18th century progressed, the town prospered and many industries established by Barditchev’s Ashkenazim flourished including a leading printing house, nine leather processing plants, a machine building establishment, three brickyards, a furniture factory, and several dozen light industrial and food processing firms.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Eastern Europe was rapidly modernizing. In an effort to preserve some of its vanishing folk traditions, a number of privately funded ethnographic projects were initiated. The An-Sky expeditions were one of these. Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport (a Jewish author, playwright, researcher of Jewish folklore, polemicist, and cultural and political activist), known by his pseudonym S. An-sky, had organized two campaigns to document the folk ways still practiced among the Jews of the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the twentieth century. An-Sky was able to complete only the first of his two ambitious expeditions in 1913 just before the first World War. During this venture his team was able to interview hundreds of subjects, collect valuable artefacts and record a portion of the fast disappearing folklore and music of eastern Europe's Ashkenazim. One of the main towns his group visited was Barditchev, which at the time had an Ashkenazi community numbering 41600 members of a total 53300 residents, or 80% of the population.
A dozen or so years after An-Sky's project, despite countless hardships, by 1926 Barditchev still remained a significant Jewish community comprising 55.6% of the overall population. It was during this interwar period that the Russian government began to explore the herbal medicine that was practiced by the country's traditional healers. To collect the data, ethnobotanical surveys were launched throughout the Soviet lands. One of these studies focused on the settlements along the Dnieper River in Ukraine. Barditchev was just one of a number of predominantly Ashkenazi towns the teams of scientists explored. According to a document published after the second World War, information on over thirty medicinal plants was reported by Barditchev’s anonymized informants during the Soviet ethnobotanical survey.
A few examples of the plants that were important to the healers of Barditchev were Viola mirabilis (violet), Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort) and Avena sativa (oats). More information about the medicinal plants known to traditional health practitioners in Bardichev can be found in Ashkenazi Herbalism.