Some teens are into outer space, some are into baseball, some into electric guitars.
Sixteen-year-old Levi Glatt of Santa Cruz is into plants.
“I’ve always been interested in plants, ever since I was very little,” said Levi, grandson of Rabbi Debbie Israel of Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill.
More specifically, Levi is into local herbs and their medicinal uses — from immune-boosting blue elderberry to the humble sour grass — which inspired him to write and illustrate a book, “Medicinal Herbs of Santa Cruz County,” which he self-published this summer. “For me it feels very rewarding to share that knowledge,” he said.
And that’s not all. The homeschooled teen has started producing a skin salve and distributing it to the homeless as part of an effort to couple the gift of healing and the gift of dignity, inspired in part by Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher, physician and rabbi. “It matters how you give the gift,” Levi said.
Levi credits his interest in herbal medicine to his mother, Rena Dubin, and to growing up in the abundant natural landscape of Santa Cruz County. As part of his homeschooling in biology, he decided to get an online certificate in intermediate herbalism from the Herbal Academy.
The expansion of that work over two years led to the bulk of the 188-page paperback book, which provides information about 31 native herbs and their healing properties. It also includes recipes, such as one for an astringent made from Himalayan blackberries (which grow locally), and details on how to harvest things, for example, giant kelp (which includes the instruction “submerge yourself in the ocean”).
It’s a lot of information — and Levi credits his homeschooling for allowing him to pursue the subject in such depth, learning not only about the plants themselves but how to create decoctions, tinctures, syrups, salves and balms. “It did take a considerate amount of effort,” he stated.
One of his favorite balms in the book is for soothing cuts and abrasions on the skin using a concoction of plantago lanceolata, yarrow and calendula (often called a marigold).
That’s the salve he’s giving out to the homeless, an attempt to give the gift of herbal healing to as many people as he can. It was an option he thought would be useful.
“Their skin is usually in kind of poor condition,” he said. “They have cuts and rashes.”
He’s been supporting this effort with the small profit he’s made off the sale of around 200 copies of his book, partnering on distribution of the salve with Food Not Bombs, a grassroots initiative that provides free vegetarian meals, and Livity Rising, which offers mobile wellness clinics. His idea is that by giving his herbal balm to mostly homeless and low-income people, he also is giving them recognition of their need for healing as a human need.
I’m being respectful, and it’s a matter of more equality and friendship.
“And that means respect — a major healing component” he said.
Dubin, his mother, connects it to Levi’s Jewish youth group studies under his grandmother at Congregation Emeth. Levi also attended the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.
“He’s really tied it into a lot of Jewish values,” Dubin said. “That also made me proud and happy.”
It was in Rabbi Israel’s class that Levi learned about Maimonides, getting introduced to the idea that there are levels of tzedakah. “He really thought about what those levels mean,” said Israel, who said she stayed late after class that day to let Levi write down his thoughts. “That kind of intrigued me as something to explore,” Levi agreed.
One of the higher levels on Maimonides’ list is anonymous giving. But Levi thinks he’s going one better by entering into relationships with people who are often overlooked. “I’m being respectful, and it’s a matter of more equality and friendship,” he said.
And he’s putting in the work. Each batch of 60 jars of salve takes about eight hours to make, Levi said — foraging for the wild plants, infusing the herbs in olive oil, straining, adding beeswax and pouring into the jars. He’s made and distributed more than 200 jars so far but wants to up the tempo. He says he’s ready to make one or two batches a week.
Levi says the lore of the Earth and healing is definitely a path he wants to keep following. He’s already started to lead herb walks and continues to experiment with the plants he knows.
“I’ll continue to study,” he said. “There’s so much to be discovered. The amount you can learn from the Earth is limitless.”