The Hidden Herbal

If you're an herbalist of Ashkenazi descent, you may already know how difficult it is to find any evidence of traditional healing among the Jews of the Pale of Settlement, particularly those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That’s the situation I found myself in when I began an herbal studies program. And what began as a spontaneous quest for information on my recent ancestors’ folk medicine turned into a rigorous search for an elusive legacy.

At one point in my research, I accidentally stumbled upon what my husband and co-author calls "The Hidden Herbal". What he is referring to is data I inadvertently uncovered in a document that was published in 1952. This source is what initially inspired Ashkenazi Herbalism and has since become a kind of forensic ethnobotanical manual we continue to refer to for our research. While that document was instrumental to writing our book, what we eventually came to understand was much more exciting but frustrating: detailed information on herbal knowledge among modern Ashkenazim in the Pale does very much exist, but it’s like a diaspora in its own right: long hidden clues live on in fragments that are scattered throughout a world of literature that is not always easily accessible to the casual researcher.

The research for Ashkenazi Herbalism was done to complete a requirement for my herbal studies program but I knew what we’d discovered was too significant to keep buried. Our book was written for anyone curious about this forgotten part of Jewish life in the Pale. It’s not meant to be a working materia medica, but rather to honor the lost legacy of the Ashkenazi healers of the Pale of Settlement. In the coming weeks, please check back for more posts on our forthcoming book.