Tag Archives: medicine

The Jewish Penicillin

Abstract: The Jewish take on Chicken Soup which is said to be a powerful substance when you’re not feeling well or you’re going through lows in health. This tradition has gone on for a few years but its actual origin is unknown. This remedy isn’t restricted to those of Jewish faith as well as it was mentioned that Christians and protestants use this remedy as well either for illness healing or for the enjoyment of eating soup.

Background: SD is a Jewish-American who attends the university of southern California who’s lived in Arkansas. He’s been living a somewhat Jewish household that holds on to a few of the secrets and traditions celebrated by Orthodox Jews. The Jewish Penicillin is a fancy name to describe chicken soup however this chicken soup apparently has some extra zest which makes it more effective than regular soup. This topic came up while we were discussing some home remedies which our families used to help when we’re ill.  


P: Ok so I told you about my traditional medicine, give me something you’ve relied on. 

S: So its really simple, its just chicken soup but everyone calls it the Jewish penicillin-like when some I knew had back surgery we got the chicken soup and they were excited we brought them Jewish Penicillin. 

P: Is it like part of the religion to use Jewish Penicillin whenever you’re not healthy?

S: This tradition seems to extend outside the Jewish religion because it’s known about by other religions. Like my mom always told me while I’m at college if I’m sick to go and buy some chicken soup from the store before buying medicine. She really believes it’s extremely effective and honestly so do it. 

P: So what’s the twist? What is the traditional way to prepare this Jewish penicillin?

S: The difference is we use a kosher chicken and sometimes people put in matzo balls which is way different than regular chicken soup but I believe the rest of it is pretty similar to regular chicken soup. 


It’s interesting to hear that it was labeled Jewish Penicillin yet everyone was using it as a method to feel better. It seems like the chicken soup was over-exaggerated when it comes to its effects but I feel it not about the soup but the lore behind it. The soup carries with it a lot of history and lore which is where the effects come to play. People for a long period of time have been believing in the idea that the new soup carries a lot of mystical powers and through this belief, the effects of this soup are increased. It is noted as well that this soup also has a second use that is able to heal the mind and restore you to a calmer state. 

S doesn’t know the origins of this Folklore but he believes its outlasted a long period of time at least beyond the life of his grandparents. He mentions that he believes the concept is passed down from each generation so it is a significant remedy that is kept alive by many families of Jewish and non-Jewish generations due to its alluded powers of healing. However, S does make a note that not every group makes it the same and there might be some adaptations to the recipe depending on the religious group. 

Folk Medicine in a time of crisis

The following is a transcribed interview between me and interviewee, MH.

Me: How are you protecting yourself against the coronavirus?

MH: OMG, well I’ve been crushing up garlic and taking it like a shot in the morning with some hot black tea with honey in it to chase it. And all our stores are getting completely wiped out of garlic because everyone is upping the garlic to boost their immune system. Our stores are also getting drained of all our kombuchas because everyone is upping the probiotics. But I thought it was pretty surprising how fast the garlic has been going, it is like never before.

Me: Thanks so much.


Interviewee works for Trader Joe’s, a supermarket chain that has been providing food services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trader Joe’s, along with many other supermarkets have been essential businesses during the pandemic and the community of food service workers have been impacting daily life because they are one of the few who are still working. Further, supermarkets are one of the only in-person businesses still running, where many people will interact. 


This piece of folklore was collected from a quick phone call when interviewee had just gotten off of work. The setting was very casual, as we were just talking to catch up and share some folklore.


Garlic is a well-known and established folk medicine for colds. However, I think it is interesting how popular this remedy has gotten with the coronavirus since there aren’t any known medicines that work for it yet. I think that it is the lack of medicines for the virus that is leading to a large surge in natural medicine and ancient eastern remedies. However, most popularly is simply raw garlic cloves being ingested or eaten. And, even more interestingly, since the interviewee works in a supermarket chain, she says that their stock is diminishing across America. And so, maybe it is possible that all over America, people are desperate and trying anything that may help them fight off this virus. Their first source of medicine seems to be reaching for the tried-and-true garlic cloves. 
For some more history on this remedy, here’s a quick, easy-to-read source with some interesting information on the growth of this remedy: https://home.howstuffworks.com/garlic3.htm

Folk Medicine- Ichthammol Ointment For Horses

Context: My informant grew up in a farming family in Michigan. Her uncle raised horses and had the philosophy of “if it’s good enough for the animals, it’s good enough for me.” Her family was relatively poor, so there was no sense to them in buying something for people when you already had it for the animals. Running around in the woods and on the farm, splinters were common for her and her siblings. She remembers her mother using the drawing salve for the horses on them and it works flawlessly. To this day, she buys the drawing salve meant for horses to use on her own children.

Text: M: “It’s a drawing salve meant for horses, it’s called ichthammol ointment for horses. But it works just as well on people. So if you have a splinter, you just rub some ichthammol ointment on it and it pops right out. They have ichthammol drawing salves for people too, but they don’t work as well because they’re made to look nice and smell good. The ones for horses might smell gross, but they work better than anything else I’ve tried.”

My Thoughts: This makes a lot of sense to me. There are so many products for animals that work just as well for humans, and they’re usually cheaper because you don’t have to pay for packaging, dyes, or fragrances.

Folk Medicine- Mud for Ant Bites

Context: My informant spent most of her childhood playing outside at her grandmother’s house in the early 2000s. She tells me she remembers there being a lot of ant piles at the house, and it wasn’t unusual for her or another kid to stand in one without realizing. Whenever someone got an ant bite, her grandmother would collect dirt and water from the yard and rub the mud on the bites. She says it would always stop the pain, and they wouldn’t itch after you took the mud off.

Remedy: For ant bites, spread wet mud over the affected area. Let the mud dry for about 30 minutes, then wash off. This soothes pain, itching, and swelling

Thoughts: Soil tends to have a lot of nutrients in it like magnesium, potassium, and other minerals that are good for your skin. Even now, clay face masks are becoming very popular for treating skin ailments. I’m sure it has a lot of healing properties for bug bites. It could very well have been a placebo remedy; putting mud on the bites would distract a child who just stood in an ant pile. Either way, the impact of the remedy seems to be strong, as she says her grandmother still uses this treatment for the children she takes care of.

Hiccup Remedies


I collected this piece of folk medicine from my mother (LP) during a particularly infuriating bout of the hiccups. She grew up in suburban Colorado in the late 20th century and learned these tricks from her parents. She has “had success with all of them” but wonders “if it is psychosomatic, like you think it’s going to work so it does.”


LP: you’re supposed to drink water like this (mimes drinking water upside-down), drinking from the back of the rim. You can also hold your breath, or eat a spoonful of sugar. And being scared, startled, when someone says BOO!


With no surefire medical consensus on how to deal with hiccups, people have often resorted to folk remedies that sometimes seem farfetched. The hiccups (Synchronous Diaphragmatic Flutter) are a quite harmless and normal biological event. They often happen after eating fast or drinking carbonated beverages and amount to little more than an inconvenience, and since they often pass within minutes, it is not common to seek professional medical help to remedy them. Nevertheless, they are annoying, and we feel like we must do something to address them. In a brief experiment, I tested all the methods my mom mentioned: the upside-down drinking and the sugar had no effect. My mom even sat down to startle me, and while I was indeed startled, I continued to hiccup moments after. Ultimately, holding my breath, after multiple tries, worked to alleviate my hiccups. I believe that my informant’s thought on the matter, that these remedies are mostly forms of placebo, is convincing. All of these different techniques require you to do something unusual, something that takes concentration or stimulates the senses in a startling way. These remedies can distract someone, often to the effect of clearing the hiccups away. Since the remedies that doctors offer are often unsatisfactory, people have created a long list of folk remedies that employ the placebo effect to address this annoyance.

Onions to Cure Fevers

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Do you know any old remedies for- did your mother impart any useful cures onto you?

Informant: Their cure back then for things were like, if you had a high fever… I would get onions, and she’d [informant’s mother] put onions on my wrists and the bottom of my feet and wrap a white cloth around them. T – because the onion would draw out the fever.

Interviewer: That was the belief?

Informant: Uh-huh.

Interviewer: But it – it worked? Would you try that again today?

Informant: No because it never ended up working.

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: I had to go to the doctor anyway and get a penicillin shot. But no I had to lay there for a week with onions until they found out the fever wouldn’t break so she would call the doctor and I’d go get a penicillin shot and then I’d feel better.

Interviewer: So how long would you go between changing the onions?

Informant: (laughs) Oh you get em changed every day. You get new onions.

Interviewer: Why do you think that was a thing?

Informant: Because they just had a belief that the onion, you know – you know how onions are stingent? And stuff like that? That that would pull – I don’t know why it had to be on your wrists and the bottoms of your feet. I was just a kid, don’t ask me! I just did what I was told! (laughs)

Interviewer: (laughs) True, true.

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. She grew up quite poor, as a family of farm workers with many siblings.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: Though it apparently was not an effective folk belief, this folk remedy for fevers is quite interesting. It was repeatedly ineffective but the informant’s mother continued to try it, possibly to avoid the costs of medicine even if it meant wasting onions. Given that they were poor, I find that to be a very likely reason, along with the possibility that the informant’s mother was just stubborn – or that her ability to believe in things was strong as is reflected in her devout religiousness. The informant said onions are “stingent” which is not a word but which I believe means to have a strong odor. It is possible that the informant said stringent meaning strict, but that wouldn’t make much sense.

Healthcare Full Moon Friday

Main Piece:

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (PB).

CB: “So tell me about the full moon friday night”

PB: “Well everyone in the hospital knows that on a full moon friday night, not only is the emergency room going to be crazy busy, but it’s going to be very bizarre, odd, and horrific things that you haven’t seen before. Somebody’s gonna come in with a severed foot, or you know, something really disturbing that you haven’t seen before, that because of the full moon and the full moon being out on a friday night where they are just more risk takers. So yeah, its also in the rest of the hospital. If you’re working in the ICU someone is probably gonna code, or go into cardiac arrest. Someone on the floor is gonna have something bizarre happening. More people are gonna have sort of crazy behaviors, the dememnted people are going to have more severe delusions or hallucinations that haven’t had any other time they’ve been there. It’s just that you believe on a full moon friday night that its just going to be a crazy night.”

CB: “Why do you think people believe that?”

PB: “Um, I think they believe that because one, there is some science behind the full moon having an effect on human behavior, uh, but also because when the night is just going very crazy you have to have an explanation. And we are the type of people, in the healthcare world, where we want to just explain everything. So we’re gonna say well, its a full moon and that’s why this is happening.”

CB: “What does the superstition mean to you?”

PB: “To me, it means that we can explain things we can’t explain, and accept things that are out of our control. You know that the full moon happens once a month, and once a month you’re just gonna have that crazy shift. And it’s a way of giving reason to what can’t have reason.”


My informant has worked as a respiratory therapist for about 8 years. This position requires that she work with every part of the medical personnel and with every department. She has also worked in about 4 hospitals in the Northern California area. Because of this, she has become very integrated into the overarching healthcare culture surrounding her work. Despite the focus on the scientific, the healthcare field has many superstitions. They often help give the healthcare workers a sense of agency and meaning over the situations they find themselves in.

I interviewed my informant in person. We were in my bedroom on my bed, and the conversation was very comfortable and casual. I had heard many stories from her work beforehand.


Within healthcare, the professionals are constantly faced with unpredictable factors. They face all sorts of horrible situations while seeing people in some of the worst circumstances of their lives. These situations make human behaviors even less predictable than they usually are. With the start of every shift, healthcare workers have to accept a lot of uncertainty, and be open to facing difficult and potentially traumatic events. Because of this, a culture of trying to predict the unpredictable has arisen and led to the development of many healthcare superstitions. By labeling and accepting one night out of the month as a horrible, crazy shift healthcare workers are able to regain the ability to prepare for the unpredictable. It also allows for an explanation as to why patients they might normally like are behaving erratically, or out of character. The superstition also bonds the community as a whole. They are able to prepare for their crazy night as though they are going into battle. They might see something disturbing, but they will do it together, and they will come out the otherside having helped people.

For more variations of healthcare superstitions see SSMHealth’s blog post “10 ER superstitions for a full moon Friday the 13th”. https://www.ssmhealth.com/blogs/ssm-health-matters/september-2019/10-er-superstitions-for-a-full-moon-friday-the-13

“Quiet” Superstition in Healthcare

Main Piece:

Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (PB).

PB: “I work in the healthcare field, and nobody is allowed anywhere in the hospital to say the word ‘quiet’. Because if you say the word quiet, then all you know what will break loose and your quiet moment will turn into chaos. And its in every hospital everywhere in the country, I don’t know about in the world. And if anyone is heard saying the word quiet, they are admonished by everyone around them. And usually we just say ‘you can’t say the q-word!’ And instead we would just say, you know, ‘it’s very calm’, or ‘I like the way things are going right now’. But if you use the word quiet you have broken the cardinal rule.”

CB: “So, why do you think its important that people believe in this?”

PB: “Um, I think that when you work in field such as the medical field where a lot of times things are just not in your control even though you want them to be, you know, you just want to make people better, and you want to have a workload that is manageable, and some sense that there is something that you are controlling. And so by not using that word, you have the idea that you are not bringing on the chaos.”

CB: “What does the quiet superstition mean to you?”

PB: “Uh, to me it means, it’s sorta a part of a brotherhood or sisterhood from being a part of that community in a hospital. It’s something that you all believe in and you all can joke about but its also something like I don’t want your night to get worse and i don’t want my day to get worse, and so we can all do this one sort of silly thing to try and help each other.”


My informant has worked as a respiratory therapist for about 8 years. This position requires that she work with every part of the medical personnel and with every department. She has also worked in about 4 hospitals in the Northern California area. Because of this, she has become very integrated into the overarching healthcare culture surrounding her work.

I interviewed my informant in person. We were in my bedroom on my bed, and the conversation was very comfortable and casual. I had heard many stories from her work beforehand.
When my informant first told me about the quiet superstition, I was really intrigued because healthcare workers are so heavily associated with clinical scientific thinking. However, there are many holes in science. As we have it now, it cannot predict everything, and it certainly can’t predict what will or won’t be a crazy night. In the face of this uncertainty, healthcare workers have begun to believe in this superstition in order to regain a sense of agency. I think that this bad luck superstition is particularly interesting because there is no way to undo it. Once the bad luck has been brought, the entire hospital will be affected until the next shift. I was also really intrigued about how following the superstition was seen as a sign of respect. My informant seemed to acknowledge that the superstition was likely untrue in the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she became a wholehearted believer once she entered the hospital setting.

For more variations of healthcare superstitions see SSMHealth’s blog post “10 ER superstitions for a full moon Friday the 13th”. https://www.ssmhealth.com/blogs/ssm-health-matters/september-2019/10-er-superstitions-for-a-full-moon-friday-the-13

Chicken Soup is the Jewish Penicillin

Main story: 

A conversation was had between the informant and myself. The informant can be known as MC and I will be known as MH. 

MC: So there is a saying that goes “chicken soup is the Jewish penicillin”. 

MH: What does that mean, and is that recognized by the jewish community? 

MC: I mean, I am in the Jewish community and I grew up with my family making that joke all of the time, so I would say based on my experience yes. And it stems from the idea that if you are sick, somehow chicken soup will cure you of all your ailments in a way that actual medicine – or penicillin- could never. 

MH: And what are your thoughts on the topic? 

MC: Honestly, I have been very sick and then ate chicken soup and felt better almost immediately after, so there may actually be some truth behind that statement. Obviously there are other deeper systemic reasons for why certain communities do not like going to doctors and instead use a more homeopathic approach, but the sentiment remains. 


The informant is a member of the Jewish community and also studies public health. And while she does not always agree with homeopathic approaches to medicine, she says that she can;t help but recognize that there is truth in a lot of the methods used. 


The informant is a friend of mine and the conversation was held over facetime in a very casual setting as we talked about different approaches to health care. 

My thoughts: 

I am in a similar vein of belief with her. I do not know where I stand in believing in homeopathic methods. But they have often been used for centuries so there has to be levels of truth to them. Because anything that people dedicate that much time to has to have a certain level of importance for one reason or another. 

Vaporub Cures a Cough- A Folk Belief

Main Text:

RB: I was told by my mom that if you put Vaporub on your feet and then cover your feet with socks then your cough is supposed to go away.


RB is a first generation Mexican-American. He said that he remembers this folk belief because every time when he was little his mom would get the Vaporub and socks and rub the Vaporub on his feet to help him feel better. Miraculously he said it works so that is why he believes in it and says he would tell his kids if he had his own to do the same thing.


Although VapoRub is not proven to cure colds, especially but putting it on one’s feet. Its presence in hispanic folk-medicine that I have encountered is a large one. I hypothesize that this belief continues to be passed down because of the context that it is associated with and not necessarily the affect it has itself. For example, most of the time when you little and you get sick in hispanic culture the mother is the one who takes care of you. If your mother is the one who carries this folk belief and she rubs VapoRub on you, you associate the VapoRub with the caressing and soothing touches of your mother. When someone who has experienced this and then goes on to have children of their own, they may pass this knowledge down to their child and rub VapoRub onto them, not necessarily because they believe that it works but because they associate this process with the gentle care and affection that they had received from their own familial member or whomever performed this act for them.

Another way to analyze why this folk belief is still being passed along and striving is the culture that many hispanic people have built around it. I have grown up around many hispanic people, mostly of Mexican decent, all of my life and am currently in a long-term relationship with someone who is Mexican. Having this background I have realized that Vaporub is used for almost any ailment in a Mexican household, even if there is no proof that it works. This is not limited to y boyfriends household either. I have asked many hispanic people about Vaporub and they all know exactly what I am talking about and even more so they usually have a a jar of it sitting around somewhere in their houses. They have built a culture that they share amongst themeselves because they all share common memories of being smothered head to toe in that stuff since childhood. Most of those who I have talked to also continue to use it to this day because of this shared memory that this is what people of Mexican or other hispanic cultures do. The use of Vaporub in Mexican households is such a common occurrence that the online realm has take hold of this belief and practice and have adapted it into hashtags, published poems, telenovela appearances, memes, emojis and even comedy skits. You can also buy t-shirts, paintings, cards and candles that all contain an appearance of Vaporub. These adaptations into the online realm and buyable objects just work together in order to strengthen the culture that many hispanics share with each other surrounding their common memories and experiences with this “magical” topical ointment. This resulting strengthened culture allows for stories and folk beliefs (like Vaporub and socks during a cold) to continued to be shared from family to family and household to household.