From the cover of “A Frog Under the Tongue: Jewish Folk Medicine in Eastern Europe” by Marek Tuszewicki
From the cover of “A Frog Under the Tongue: Jewish Folk Medicine in Eastern Europe” by Marek Tuszewicki

New books: The nearly forgotten world of Jewish folk healing

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My father’s sister Sandra suffered terribly from lupus. After Sandra fell into a long coma as a teenager, my grandmother traveled more than 1,000 miles for an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Despite the fact that she and my grandfather ran a pharmacy and spent their days dispensing medications, my grandmother turned to the rebbe in hopes that he could achieve for her daughter what modern medicine had been unable to accomplish.

I evoke this story because, although the image of the Jewish doctor may be a staple in our culture, we can easily forget that, for many Jews, scientifically based medicine has often shared the stage with healing practices rooted in religion and folklore.

No book makes this point more cogently than Marek Tuszewicki’s “A Frog Under the Tongue: Jewish Folk Medicine in Eastern Europe,” translated from Polish to English and published this year. It is the first comprehensive presentation of the complicated world of healing among traditional Jews in the Pale of Settlement.

Tuszewicki explores in detail the unique Eastern European Jewish worldview concerning sickness and health, which included religiously transmitted beliefs about the body and its relationship to the larger world. As physical health was understood as being entwined with spiritual health, cures would often incorporate a spiritual dimension.

This did not mean that Jews rejected biology-based medicine. In fact, the Talmud and legal codes embrace the role of the physician. But there often was hesitation in accepting the primacy of modern medicine. The Jewish physicians who began to proliferate in the 19th century were frequently identified with the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), and many traditional Jews were wary of those who had turned to secular Western education. And for some, the very essence of modern medicine was suspect. While the Jewish belief was that God heals, secular medicine recognized only biological causes and effects.

The practitioners that Eastern European Jews more conventionally turned to — whether out of belief or necessity — included ba’alei shem (spiritual healers, some of whom were rabbis), midwives and feldshers (barber-surgeons whose modalities included cupping and bloodletting). Herbal cures were prevalent, and since we are about to celebrate Sukkot, it is notable that the four species of plants used ritually during that holiday were especially valued for their curative properties. Some healers focused on demonology, astrology, and practices and beliefs that we would deem superstitious. In fact, Tuszewicki devotes an entire chapter to the evil eye.

What deepens this fascinating study is the vast array of sources that Tuszewicki — a young Polish scholar who directs the Institute for Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow — incorporates, ranging from religious source material to colorful memoirs.
For anybody interested in understanding the Eastern European Jewish experience through the 19th century, Tuszewicki paints a rich picture not only of the medical landscape, but of the very nature of these communities who balanced ancient traditions and regional influences, while keeping an uneasy eye on the rapid ascension of modernity.

In “Ashkenazi Herbalism: Rediscovering the Herbal Traditions of Eastern European Jews,” Davis residents Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel offer a deeper dive into the modality that Tuszewicki discusses as having the “greatest importance in folk healing” — the medicinal use of plants.

The book’s genesis is worth noting. Cohen, a master gardener at the University of California according to her bio, reports that when she was beginning her training in herbalism, one of the initial assignments called for students to focus on their own ancestral traditions. Although she was not too far removed from her Eastern European Jewish forebears, Cohen had no idea of what their herbal practices might have been. And, in spite of having been a reference librarian, she found herself unable to turn up sources of information. So she began researching and writing this book.

She acknowledges that the path to reconstructing Eastern European Jews’ herbal traditions depends on an “exceptionally faint trail.” We have been separated from our understanding of Jewish folk medicinal practices by numerous factors, most notably the Holocaust. Fortunately, as many of the herbs were also used by non-Jewish populations with whom Jews coexisted, Cohen and Siegel, a reference librarian at UC Davis, were able to avail themselves of additional sources casting light on regional practices.

This unusual book begins with a short historical survey of Jewish folk healing in the Pale of Settlement. Most of the book, however, is devoted to a detailed presentation of 26 plants (such as pepperwort, peony, larkspur, and strawberry) that were prominent among the herbal remedies of Eastern European Jews. Cohen and Siegel offer information for each plant, along with examples of known therapeutic uses in pre-WWII Jewish communities.

My first reading of this portion of the book did not feel particularly rewarding, since I’ve never dabbled much in herbs. And then, by coincidence, I was meeting a friend, who happens to be a biology teacher, in Golden Gate Park. Just before I arrived, he fell and suffered facial bleeding. He then went foraging for some yarrow to apply on the wound.

Watching my friend use a native plant medicinally struck me, partly because it reinforced just how foreign such an activity would be to me. But I was brought back to the book, for Cohen and Siegel remind urbanites like myself that our ancestors were likely much less alienated from the natural world than we are. And delving into how they healed themselves is one way for us to understand them, and perhaps ourselves, better.

“A Frog Under the Tongue: Jewish Folk Medicine in Eastern Europe” by Marek Tuszewicki (384 pages, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization)

“Ashkenazi Herbalism: Rediscovering the Herbal Traditions of Eastern European Jews” by Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel (352 pages, North Atlantic Books)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.