Psychoactives in the Pale Part 1

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Pyellum Bronfen

Since finishing Ashkenazi Herbalism, we’ve continued our research on healing traditions in the Pale of Settlement for our next book. An area of particular interest for us has been the role of midwives and how their knowledge was transmitted in under-acknowledged ways. One instance of this appears to be a story associated with the Ba’al Shem Tov (ca 1698 - 1760) that we found early on. In the account, a troubled husband approached the Besht for help because his wife was having a very difficult labor and was unable to give birth. The Ba’al Shem Tov recommended to the man that his wife do a specific walking therapy, and sure enough, after a few paces in the prescribed method, the woman was able to give birth to the couple’s child. This method most likely was learned from the Besht’s mother, Sarah, who had been a midwife.

Around the time Ashkenazi Herbalism was published, we were asked whether we would like to be interviewed for a podcast that focuses on Ashkenazim and psychoactive plants. At the time we declined because we hadn’t really looked at plants from that angle, and although we had found information on plant knowledge that hinted at more obscure applications, we’d concentrated mainly on somatic remedies.

But this request stirred our curiosity and, since then, in addition to our work on healing traditions in the Pale in general, we’ve been looking a bit more into the role that psychoactive plants might have played in Eastern European Jewish life.

Our research has been both very focused and also quite broad. In casting our net widely we’ve stumbled on so many surprising and exciting discoveries. One of these referred us back to the Ba’al Shem Tov, and, more specifically, to his daughter, Adel (sometimes Udl) Ashkenazi (1720-1787), who is supposed to have learned herbalism and healing from her father. In trying to discover more about this renowned woman practitioner, one of the sources we consulted included an anecdote that mentioned a medicinal plant. This particular reference leapt out at us because it was cloaked in terminology that demanded more sensitive investigation. This was the advice of a Polish Hasid to his son, on how to identify the strongest possible medicinal formulations, thus avoiding weaker, inferior products:

“My papa, Reb Shlomo Schachter, of blessed memory, was a Belzer Hasid, and once I remember he told me a secret he had learned in Belz. In Poland, before the Holocaust, they used to make a green-tinted schnapps called pyellum bronfen. It was made with bitter herbs (hence its greenish tint) and was supposed to be good for the stomach. But Papa told me he had learned in his time among the Belzer Hasidim that “you should never buy pyellum bronfen from a Hasid.” “Why?” I asked. “Because a Hasid doesn’t let it steep long enough . . . he drinks a lot faster than the ordinary person!” [Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman, and Netanel Miles-Yepez. A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters, The Jewish Publication Society, 2009, p. xxiv]

So we immediately wondered: this “pyellum” bronfen, what could it be? Bronfen is easy enough: it’s the Yiddish word for distilling, similar to English “brandy.” The name used by the Belzer Hasids is strikingly similar to the plant known to Ashkenazi Jews variously as “biterkroyt,” “veremkroyt,” and “biterer polin,” “palun,” and “polun.” The town of Belz is right on the border between Ukraine and Poland. In Ukrainian dialects, the same plant is known as “polin” and “pelin.” And in Polish, “piołun,” which is pronounced something like “pyowun.” That name, the bitter taste, the greenish tint -- given that it was “supposed to be good for the stomach,” and that Hasidim drank it faster than anyone else (not even letting it age properly!), what else could pyellum bronfen be but a distillate of Artemisia absinthium — absinthe?

Some “food” for thought, and further confirmation that healing traditions were passed down alongside spiritual ones, and that Ashkenazi Jews relied on Artemisia absinthium not only for digestive troubles, but also to help keep one’s “heart afire.”