Ancient Roots Israel: The ancient Jewish herbal medicine tradition

Ancient Roots Israel (ARI) originally started in 2020 as an annual professional-level conference in the Lower Galilee. Then COVID came about.

 The ARI Tree: A poster for the Ancient Roots Israel conference (photo credit: ARI)
The ARI Tree: A poster for the Ancient Roots Israel conference
(photo credit: ARI)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of cooks.”

“Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of cooks.”

Charlemagne, supposedly

That quotation is attributed to Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, the Lombards, and the Holy Roman Empire. While the quote itself was most likely not actually said by him, Charlemagne was the first leader in medieval Europe to develop the growth of local herbs. And considering he lived to 66, quite a miraculous age to live to in that period, even taking in child mortality, it seems that using herbs as his treatment didn’t fail him too badly.

While the world has a wide scale, yet close-knit community that finds a great sense of camaraderie in herbal medicine, a person abroad would be surprised to hear that Israel’s herbal medicine scene is also thriving. The reason? There was virtually no material about it in English, whether it be research or content. That is, until a woman by the name of J. Rivkah Asoulin emerged. 

What is Israel's herbal medicine scene?

Growing up in Ohio as a child actress, at 19 Asoulin was told by a doctor that she would not be able to have children and would need to have a full hysterectomy by age 25, due to a case of endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. After many attempts by different OB-GYNs, as well as multiple surgeries and copious amounts of pharmaceutical drugs, Asoulin turned to Chinese traditional medicine at the recommendation of an OB-GYN who surmised that Asoulin wouldn’t find any answers in Western medicine

Soon enough, she began to delve deeper into herbal medicine, being able to quit the narcotics and getting healthier: “All those years, I had been suffering from chronic illness, and all of a sudden I had found something that was working, so I started diving into it head first.” And lo and behold, today Asoulin home schools her seven children.

“All those years, I had been suffering from chronic illness, and all of a sudden I had found something that was working, so I started diving into it head first.”

J. Rivkah Asoulin

Asoulin’s first endeavor in health was forming Wise Women Fertility, giving lectures, writing a blog, and seeing private clients, using symptothermal fertility awareness. As she was researching herbal medicine in Israel, she realized there is hardly any content in English and that for new immigrants, there is almost no access to any of this information. Not only that, but Asoulin also found out that herbal medicine experts in Israel aren’t involved in any communities abroad, and there is no recognition of herbal medicine in Israel, deeming it as “woo-woo, urban myths and diet fads,” despite the extensive research being done in Israel on that topic.

 J. Rivkah Asoulin (credit: ARI) J. Rivkah Asoulin (credit: ARI)

There is also a great amount of importance that herbs hold in Jewish history, with the likes of revered figures such as Rambam practicing herbal treatments, or the survival of the Jews by foraging for wild mallow (huzeba) during the brutal siege of Jerusalem.

Fascinatingly, the olden traditions are still being kept today, but not by whom you’d expect. When Nissim Krispil, who wrote a five-volume encyclopedia about Israel’s wild plants, went to research Arab villages in Israel, he was told that the Arabic ancestors of those people learned the herbal ways of the Jews before the Diaspora, and they are being preserved with even more knowledge by these villages nowadays.

Asoulin says that Israel’s ecosystem allows for a massive variety of research in herbal medicine as well. “We’ve got the Negev, all the way up to the Hermon. There is a huge cross-section of biodiversity. There is so much happening.”

That is how the idea of Ancient Roots Israel (ARI) came about. It originally started in 2020 as an annual professional-level conference in the Lower Galilee. Then COVID came about, right on the heels of the first conference, and Asoulin had to find a way to keep ARI going, despite the inability to hold physical conferences. A website was created, and with it came the Virtual Plantwalk, a video series where Asoulin would focus on one plant at a time, describing its culinary or medicinal uses, identification or poisonous lookalikes (“It is a lot easier to kill yourself with pharmaceutical medicine than it is with herbs,” she says), and have a dialogue with the participants.

“After everything we’ve been through with COVID, there are two camps,” Asoulin says. “One of them is like ‘COVID is a deadly illness, I don’t want to be near it, and any hospital or clinics exposes me to a deadly illness.’ The other camp, who are not into this COVID thing, feel like they’re being medically coerced into taking a PCR test or wearing a mask to a doctor’s appointment. Both camps could benefit from herbal medicine. If everyone knew some basic things about herbal medicine, they could try it at home and understand that it works and is widely available. Then families could start talking to each other again. Maybe I’m idealistic, but families could say, ‘Oh, you have a scratchy throat? Try this tea or this plant.”

ARI is meant to be completely extraneous to politics, bringing people of all religions and ideologies together with the commonality of wanting to be healthier with herbal medicine. “Everything else doesn’t matter,” says Asoulin, as opposed to what happened with the ARI 2020 conference, where the BDS boycotted the conference and forced multiple speakers from abroad to pull out, going as far as sending them death threats. Despite that, Asoulin is a glass half full type of person and says that the attack led to pharmaceutical communities contacting them, showing support, and even attending the conference.

The ARI 2023 conference, to be held on January 22-24 at the Ana Poriya Resort in Tiberias (“We are the only kosher conference in the world, and one of the only conferences that is not over a Shabbat,” making it possible for religious people to attend), is, as Asoulin puts it, a “choose-your-own-adventure” type of conference. It will have a few main lectures by distinguished herbalists such as Matthew Wood, who has treated countless patients and runs the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism; and Sara Chana Silverstein, a clinical herbalist with a #1 best seller book on Amazon about dealing with mental issues using herbs. The rest will be personal choice – with workshops such as veterinary medicine, crafting medicinal creams, and herbs for pregnancy and post-partum led by doula Gilla Weiss; and plantwalks, for both clinical and culinary uses, one of which will involve a foraging hike with Nissim Krispil, and learning how to cook with them in the field on the spot.

“We’re going into our ancient roots. There’s a lot of talk about being indigenous. We all have indigenous roots to somewhere. That is part of our herbal birthright. Our ability to nourish ourselves, eat well and care for ourselves with herbal medicine,” says Asoulin.

The conference will have open Q&As with the experts throughout its entirety, as well as social evenings. It is directed toward creating and establishing an intimate community, one whose core values are leaning on one another to learn, and to open up about things like chronic illnesses. Asoulin says one of the women attending the conference has opened up about healing from cancer using herbal medicine.

Herbal medicine is people’s medicine. We have a birthright to be able to heal ourselves with wholesome, pure medicine that grows from the earth, and we want to return that birthright to the people. It used to be that everyone knew what to do with herbal medicine. While there are great things about pharmaceutical medicine, the chain broke between herbal medicine and the people, and we want to give that back,” Asoulin asserts. ■

You can find more information about ARI and register for the conference at