From time to time I will write book reviews for this blog, especially books that tie in with happiness, joy, emotions, and self-care. A dear friend of mine approached me about doing a review for Ashkenazi Herbalism: Rediscovering the Herbal Traditions of Eastern European Jews and I gladly obliged.
“Herbalism, or herbal medicine, seems a simple enough concept,” the preface begins. What seems to be a simple concept at the surface turns out to be complex and we quickly learn of the rich stories and histories of different communities that have relied on herbal medicine for millennia. Notably, many communities of the Pale Settlement in Eastern Europe relied on Ashkenazi herbalists and doctors, just as many Ashkenazi Jews of the Pale relied on other communities (specifically Traditional Chinese Medicine and Middle Eastern herbalists) as well. The different groups that lived in and traveled around the Pale Settlement had a symbiotic relationship.
During the Jewish Enlightenment, which was inspired by the European Enlightenment, age-old traditions began to fade away. Physicians with Western academic training along with health care reformers from the Jewish middle classes of Eastern Europe, attempted to reshape attitudes about health care. It’s important to note in this review that while there were doctors and hospitals in the years leading to World War I, the doctors still referred to Feldshers, Midwives, and other traditional doctors. The locals still saw and trusted these groups of practitioners because they used traditional remedies that they were familiar with.
By the end of Part I, as the reliance on modern hospitals and doctors grew, we are reminded of the importance of our connection to the natural world is for remembering our ancestors, for healing ourselves, and for the health of future generations. This leads us into Part II where the importance of plants and knowing the medicinal properties come into play, which leads us to Part III and 26 different herbs that are important in traditional medicine.
This is the part of Ashkenazi Herbalism where Cohen’s research experience as a librarian, artist and herbalist shines. This is also the part where Siegel’s translation experience shines and together they weave beautiful tales. Starting with aloe and ending with viola, there are translations for Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, German, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian, for each culture that would work with the plant. It was helpful to see, to get into the mind of the healer that would use one of these languages in their work. I also loved the stories and traditions that accompanied each plant.
Ashkenazi Herbalism was indeed detective work and all this research was beautifully written, and it wasn’t overly technical. This book could be read by novices and it did a wonderful job introducing herbalism. However, I feel like Part I could have been broken down into parts like the plants were. Part I was a long read and while it was interesting, it was dense when broken up with bolded sections. However, breaking down that part might not have made sense. It was wordy and possibly for a good reason.
In this day and age, herbalism and traditional medicine still has a place in our lives. We could see this during the Pandemic especially. While we still relied on doctors and we still need to rely on doctors, people also trust the ancient wisdom for when modern medicine can’t answer everything. Ashkenazi Herbalism is for those who are interested in the history of traditional medicine in Eastern Europe, how Jewish thought impacted their community and the communities around them. This book also makes the case for trusting this wisdom and maybe asking these questions of our ancestors.
I would give this book a rating of 4.5 out of 5. Cohen and Siegel did an amazing job writing and researching and I learned something as I read. Traditional medicine is definitely used for self-care and I had an interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) beforehand, now I really have an interest. This book is recommended.