Beyond chicken soup: A healers take on Chinese medicine

The practice of Chinese medicine includes acupuncture, massage, proper nutrition, meditation, herb therapy and other Eastern practices that can improve vitality and ward off disease.

Maybe that's why Cohen parted ways with her Jewish upbringing — at least when it came to medicine — while seeking a cure for her own mystery disease more than 25 years ago.

It was 1969 and Cohen was caught up in the turmoil of civil rights protests and sleepless nights of study at Oberlin College. Her diet was typical of most college students — sweets, pizza and dorm food.

These new habits didn't last long before Cohen had a breakdown. The doctors thought it was mononucleosis, then appendicitis. They operated and found it was mono, after all. Definitely.

It was chronic fatigue syndrome, Cohen later learned, though it didn't have a name until the 1980s.

Not wishing to repeat the experience, the biopsychology student became a vegetarian and began to learn about herbs and natural food therapy.

The seed for a more wholesome lifestyle actually was planted earlier by her Jewish grandmother — a practicing Jew, fruitarian and yoga teacher. Cohen fondly recalls the soaked black mission figs and dried millet breakfasts, though the sorghum was less than a hit.

The years following her decision to lead a healthier lifestyle lured Cohen into the politics of health care. She started a women's health newspaper in 1970 and, subsequently, discovered inroads to natural healing.

By the time she enrolled in her first Chinese medicine class, where teachers engaged students in a talmudic-style discourse of medical texts, she realized, "This is where I'm supposed to be."

Cohen, who now holds a doctorate in Oriental medicine and is a state-certified acupuncturist, has since discovered further similarities between Jewish practice and Chinese medicine.

"When I go to China and I tell them I'm Jewish, they get very excited and say we have a lot in common. I think, `What are you talking about?'"

"They are talking about a quest for education and knowledge," she said. "Their way of Chinese medical study is very similar [with regard to] the questioning of the sages. One of the ancient Chinese medical books is a series of questions and interpretations of the Yellow Emperor," who, as legend has it, first promoted acupuncture and healing arts in China during the third millennium, BCE.

Of course, the biggest connection is their mutual understanding of an antiviral agent called chicken soup. But both have long relied on special preparation of many other foods to avoid illness, Cohen said.

Indeed, while Europe choked on waves of plagues, Jews and Chinese for thousands of years have known how to prevent epidemics through sanitation. The Jews shunned pork and ritually slaughtered meat, draining the blood and salting it. They ate only domesticated animals, shunning meat from diseased animals, wild beasts or birds of prey. The Chinese added ginger and other digestive herbs to foods to eliminate parasites.

The two cultures diverge, however, when it comes to what they seek in their practices, Cohen said. Jews seek higher knowledge to get close to God, while the Chinese question to learn about how their bodies relate to the earth.

"Their spiritual web has no weaver," she says.

When it comes to earth-based medicine, Chinese medicine leaves Jewish folk medicine in the dust, so to speak. Chinese farmers planted the same land for generations and charted lunar patterns for the best times to harvest herbs while Jews wandered the diaspora.

"[Jews] haven't had a chance to develop the same earth-based system," Cohen explains.

But Jews and Western doctors of today are making up for lost time. More so now than ever, they are incorporating Eastern philosophy into their practices.

Zen thinking has found a place in the Jewish meditation movement, and Eastern thinking helps Rabbi Miriam Senturia of the Jewish healing center, Ruach Ami, to guide patients to Jewish spiritual practices.

The rabbi said she learned about the power of silence and meditation at the Green Gulch Zen Center before she went to rabbinical school.

Some mainstream health professionals now recognize that Chinese medicine can help where Western treatment falls short.

At her Mission District clinic, Cohen has treated up to 10 percent more referrals from medical doctors last year than in 1995. Many of her new clients are doctors and nurses with aches and pains of their own.

Most recently, the healer has worked with AIDS researchers to keep AIDS symptoms at bay while the researchers seek a cure for the scourge.

Cohen released her first book, "The Chinese Way to Healing," last fall, and is working on another about treating HIV.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.