The pharmacy in your backyard: spotlight on herbal medicine

All that man needs for health and healing has been provided by God in nature, the Challenge of science is to find it.” – Paracelsus (16th-century Swiss physician).

Left: HERBALIST Nir Avraham leads a plant walk. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Left: HERBALIST Nir Avraham leads a plant walk.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
All that man needs for health and healing has been provided by God in nature, the Challenge of science is to find it.” – Paracelsus (16th-century Swiss physician).
Here are four things you probably did not know until right now:
1) Herbalism is a thriving and growing form of alternative medicine here in Israel.
2) There is an organization called the Israeli Society of Plant Sciences.
3) There is an Israeli company called the Al-Alim Center for Herbal Medicine that grows more than 200 medicinal herbs, and
4) An international conference called Ancient Roots Israel is coming up in February that will bring together herbalists from Israel, Europe and the United States.
What is “herbal medicine”? Wikipedia says, “Herbal medicine (also herbalism) is the study of the botany and use of medicinal plants. Plants have been the basis for medical treatments through much of human history, and such traditional medicine is still widely practiced today.”
Before you dismiss the subject, discontinue reading this article and move on to something else, Wikipedia’s next statement is, “Modern medicine makes use of many plant-derived compounds as the basis for evidence-based pharmaceutical drugs.”
Herbalism is serious alternative medicine, requiring an extensive knowledge of botany and pharmacology, and has been shown to produce positive results in areas where conventional Western medicine has failed. This is one of the themes that will animate the upcoming Ancient Roots Israel Herbal Conference, to be held this coming February 9-11 – coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat – at the Ana Poriya Guest House, south of Tiberias and overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
Bringing together practicing herbalists and those who wish to learn more about the scope and benefits of herbal medicine, the conference will feature lectures, workshops and “herb walks,” featuring walking tours of medically useful trees and plants. Lectures and workshops will cover such topics as herbs for emotional health, herbs for kids, herbs for labor and postpartum recovery, herbal birth control, as well as more offbeat subjects like “The Mystical and Medicinal Properties of the Seven Fruits of Israel.”
The conference is being organized by a steering committee consisting of Betina Thorball, a clinical herbalist with a PhD in biotechnology and molecular biology; Gilla Weiss, herbalist, massage therapist and former La Leche League leader; Malkie Rozenberg-Swidler, born in the Soviet Union and raised on herbal medicine; and Adriane Rivka Bernstein, whose devotion to herbal medicine is part of her fascination with numerous disciplines related to natural and self-healing, including auric healing, reflexology, Chi-Lel, EFT, color mediation and Swedish massage.
THE INITIATOR of this conference and driving force behind the whole idea of an Ancient Roots Israel community is J. Rivkah Asoulin, a 40-year-old religious mother of seven, who exemplifies the adage that behind every face here in Israel is a unique and interesting story.
She says, “I grew up a secular Jew of an interfaith marriage in Kent, Ohio. I was the only Jew around, and I grew up like a secular Christian for all intents and purposes. And I was a professional child actor.”
A card-carrying member of AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Asoulin did work in musical theater, radio, commercials and voice-overs.
“I had this kind of unusual upbringing.”
She went first to public school and then found herself part of the first class of girls at an erstwhile all-Catholic boys school.
“I left home when I was 18, lived in Chicago for a time, and eventually I ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I went to UC Berkeley, putting myself through college.”
It was illness, however, that set Asoulin on what she calls the “herbal path.”
“When I was around 12 or 13 years old,” she recalls, “I started having incredible pain around my menstrual cycle. My parents took me to all kinds of doctors, and they couldn’t explain what was going on. They followed protocol, put me on birth control pills.
“And when I was 17, I read a book about endometriosis, and I showed it to my OB-GYN doctor and told him, ‘This is it. This is what I have.’ And he literally laughed me out of his office.
“It took me a few years to find a doctor who’d believe me. He told me the only way to diagnose this is through exploratory surgery. I was diagnosed. I did have endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome. And they tried to give me a conventional pharmaceutical drug. I looked it up on the Internet and found that it caused all kinds of scary side effects. When I rejected the drug, I was thrown out of the doctor’s office.
“So being thrown out by Western medicine, I started looking into all kinds of alternative medicine. This was the way I got into herbalism.”
Interestingly enough, Asoulin’s definition of “herbalism” rests heavily on its social and economic aspects.
“I have a good sound bite for you, but I believe it wholeheartedly. Herbal medicine is people’s medicine. That’s the short answer. It’s when you go out your door and have these wild weeds that nature or God – however you want to conceive it – put right in your yard. It’s accessible, it’s free. It can be prepared in a simple, easy way at home. It’s a living pharmacy.”
This is an important point to make, as many Western medicines – such as penicillin, made from molds, and aspirin, made from tree bark – began herbal and became commercial.
Prompted to supply an example of herbal medicine, Asoulin describes an herb known as St. John’s wort, which, she says, grows here in Israel.
“It’s a burn remedy. And it’s popular here in Israel because it’s an antidepressant. It can also be used as a sunscreen. And it has so many other uses. It helps with jet lag. It fights bacteria. It’s an antiviral and antimicrobial herb.”
Asoulin says she takes it as a precaution before flying and breathing the plane’s recycled air.
Asoulin now has seven children, the last three born in a three-and-a-half-year span, after being told years ago that she would never be able to have kids.
Asked if she attributes her fertility and general health to her almost total reliance on herbal medicine, she replies, “There’s no question. I went through conventional medicine for many years, from the age of 12 to 24. They threw up their hands and said there was nothing they could do. They said there was no option but to remove my uterus. I couldn’t accept this. So I went into Chinese medicine, energy healing, all these different things, because each of us in a desperate situation like that is willing to go anywhere and look at anything. I found my way to herbalism.”
Does she ever feel the need to avail herself of Western, commercial, pharmacy medicine or conventional medical treatment?
“Rarely,” Asoulin says, while explaining that there is a range of variation in the “herbal community.” She mentions, for example, Betina Thorball, on the conference steering committee. She is an herbalist, her husband is an MD, and they are into what Asoulin calls integrative medicine. “So there’s a spectrum in the herbal community. It’s not like you have to shun Western medicine. But there are many people who do.”
ASOULIN SAYS that the trigger for planning the Ancient Roots Israel conference was her visit recently to the annual Herbfeast Ireland conference. She loved it and decided to emulate and recreate it here in Israel.
Her underlying goal is to foster contacts between the Israeli herbal community and herbal communities throughout the world. Neither side, she says, is aware of what the other is doing, largely because the Israeli community is doing most, if not all, of its work in Hebrew. The Ancient Roots Israel conference is intended to break down the barriers and bring everyone together in a large cohesive international community.
“One problem we have is that the perception of Israel in much of the world is generally negative,” Asoulin says. “But on top of that, Israeli herbalists are not reaching out in English, which is the international language, to the world community to let them know what we’re doing, what our advances are, how we’re progressing with herbalism here. So there’s this discord.
“So I said, ‘Why is this happening? It’s mind-boggling!’ And then I said, ‘What if we get our top herbalists in Israel, and give them a forum right alongside these international big names in herbalism all together, in the same conference, and let them talk in a common language, English, and share their knowledge and give lectures, and get to know each other and network. And let the Israelis who are willing to break their teeth speaking English come in and hear the foreign herbalists, and let the international herbalists come in and hear the Israeli herbalists, and let’s get some collaboration going. Let’s unify us.”
The upcoming Ancient Roots conference is likely to be a giant leap in that direction. 
For more information about the conference (February 9 to11) and to arrange attendance and accommodations:
Note: Sadly, writer Carl Hoffman passed away in December, leaving us with this final piece. He is already very much missed.