It's been six months since Ashkenazi Herbalism was published and in that time many have expressed their feelings about the book. Mostly they've been very positive. Some people have told us the book changed their lives. Others were moved to tears after reading certain passages. And then there are the inevitable reviews on goodreads that make me wonder if some readers really understand what the book represents. I thought I'd take this blog post opportunity to explain what we hoped to accomplish by publishing Ashkenazi Herbalism.
To anyone who asks whether Ashkenazi Herbalism is a reference book, they are correct -- yes, it is a reference book! It's the book I wished I could have found during my clinical herbalism program after instructors encouraged students to refer to our ancestral practices for herbal guidance and I could find nothing published on my own people's medicinal plant traditions.
Ashkenazi Herbalism was written to compensate for this lack of available information and to demonstrate irrefutably that Jews of the Pale were deeply rooted in the natural world and sought healing and comfort from the plants, peoples and other spirits they lived amongst.
Even though there's an enormous body of scholarship dedicated to the Jewish Pale of Settlement, we found that there is very little documentation on the folk healers who thrived there up until the second World War. And any fragments that can be gleaned are widely scattered throughout the literature. To make foraging for clues even more challenging, most of the sources are in languages other than English. So, it was from this vast and entangled landscape that Adam and I teased out tiny rootlets of a long history of Ashkenazi healing that we hope provides the context for the materia medica section of our book.
The materia medica section itself is largely based on an accidental discovery I made during my studies. If it hadn't been for this unexpected revelation, Adam and I would not have undertaken this project and the stories of the Jewish healers and their remedies would still be unknown.
I want to emphasize that the materia medica is a historical glimpse into a lost practice. It is NOT meant to be a working herbal. Instead, it compares a snapshot of a forgotten tradition in the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the twentieth century to the larger and better known history of Western herbalism, from antiquity to the present.
At the outset, Adam and I both acknowledged how important it is to tell the stories of the unknown healers from the Jewish Pale. We agreed this information had to be shared with as wide an audience as possible and the best way to do that was to make our research easily accessible and enduring. And our intention from the very beginnings of this project was to establish a foundation for further research in an extremely neglected corner of Ashkenazi history. It is our sincerest hope that others will continue to uncover the deeply buried stories of the Jewish folk healers of the Pale, those unacknowledged traditional practitioners who, with their profound knowledge of plants and other curatives, kept their communities resilient up until the very end of European Jewry.