‘Zhen Yu and the Snake’ – New Take on Old Jewish Tale

Hong Kong-based author of ‘Alone on Dan Street’, Erica Lyons, reimagines a story about Rabbi Akivah’s daughter from the Talmud in a tale of the Jew of Kaifeng.

Teaching children the skills to talk about their own identity and to hold space for the uniqueness of others is foundational to helping them develop the conscious empathy essential to identifying and combating bias. As an educator, one of the most accessible ways I’ve found to practice this with my students is through storytelling.

There are far more ethnically and racially diverse children’s book offerings now than ever before. However, there is an increasing need for books featuring racially and ethnically diverse Jewish characters.

I spoke with Erica about what inspired her to begin writing children’s books, the importance of diverse representations in children’s literature, and her upcoming children’s book featuring the Jews of Kaifeng Zhen Yu and the Snake. Below are excerpts from our conversation. Note that some answers are edited for clarity.

Shekhiynah Larks: What inspired you to start writing children’s books? 

Erica Lyons: I am a writer at heart, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I have been writing for many years across many different publications, including Asian Jewish Life. I’ve spent most of my time as a writer, writing for an adult audience. When I was writing for adults, I always said what made a piece a success was the ability to reach one reader, to make a difference for one person.

When I thought about the books that had the most significant impact on me, I seemed to always come back to texts from my childhood, the books that I read, and the books that I wish I had been able to read.

One of my favorite memories is seeing Fiddler on the Roof as a child.  Somehow, even then, I absorbed and clung to this singular narrative of the Jewish people. The funny part is that this story wasn’t even the narrative of my own family. Sure, I had a fiddle-playing grandparent from Ukraine/Russia, but I also had grandparents who were Hungarian and Persian and who didn’t know Yiddish or how to play the violin. While reflecting, I found that my understanding of Jewish history growing up was incredibly limited.

I don’t want to repeat that cycle for my family. I want all Jewish children to have access to the wholeness of the Jewish world, and I hope to create books that better reflect the diversity of experience of the Jewish people.

SL: Are the themes in your upcoming book Zhen Yu and the snake representative of your experience raising a multiethnic child?  

EL: Zhen Yu and the Snake, which Kar Ben will publish in 2023,  is a retelling of the Talmud story of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter and the snake set in the 12th century in Kaifeng China.

The exact origin of the Kaifeng Jewish community is unknown, but most scholars agree that they were likely Persian traders who arrived during the Song Dynasty (960-1127). It was always a tiny Jewish community in Kaifeng, and they eventually assimilated into Chinese society while preserving some Jewish customs. Today there are still a small number of families that claim to be descendants of this ancient community.

I chose to set the story in Kaifeng. I’d like this book to be used to introduce the history of Jews in China to readers, some for the first time, and also broaden people’s understanding of Jewish history more generally. Our stories, like our history, didn’t occur entirely in Europe, nor should narratives of Jewish resilience or pain be tied solely to the Holocaust.

SL: Could you elaborate on the complexity of understanding racial identities in two countries with different conceptions of race? How does this impact your family’s multiethnic identity? 

EL: My children have a very different understanding of race growing up in a country that is 92% Han Chinese. They have had the experience of growing up in a racially diverse Jewish community. My third grader, who is Chinese, is in a class with other Jewish children (it is a Jewish school) and ethnically Chinese. There are children in the community that are Jewish and Indian, Thai, African American, and Yemenite, to name a few. She has never had the experience of being the only Jew of color in a classroom or synagogue. Living here in my community in Hong Kong, it is easy to pretend that this is how Jews of Color in other places experience the world though we know that our community is unique in many ways.

A few years ago, I had enrolled her in a day camp in Tel Aviv, but since racial diversity to us is a given, I didn’t think to ask. I remember dropping her off that first day at the camp and thinking, this is the whitest place I’ve been to in the last 20 years.

SL: What was the thought process behind how you chose to depict diversity in Alone together on Dan Street?

EL: In Alone Together on Dan Street, it comes across in the illustrations and the neighbors’ names. It was crucial to the publishers and me that the book includes neighbors with names that reflect some of the diversity in the Jewish world. Additionally, one neighbor is in a wheelchair. This idea came either from the illustrator or the editor, but it is an important detail, and I’m proud to have that reflected in this book.

SL: What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book? 

EL: I hope my readers understand the importance of creating community and connection. I gave my main character, Mira, agency and hope that this shows children that they also can help others feel less alone. While Mira brings together an entire neighborhood, it starts with a small gesture.

SL: How could this book be utilized to talk about identity in a classroom setting?

EL: The book can open up meaningful discussions about what it means to be lonely and how they have family, friends, schools, synagogues, and community around them, so they don’t feel alone. Being the only Jewish child or the only person of color can feel incredibly lonely without support. Feeling alone doesn’t always equate to being physically isolated. Not having adequate representation of different customs and experiences can leave those with marginalized identities feeling othered.

I hope that my books can also start conversations about what it means to belong.

SL: Why is diversity in children’s literature important? 

EL: Children need to see themselves reflected in the books that they read.  Equally important is that children see identities other than their own reflected in the books they read. Books can be a way for children to learn empathy, gain comfort with, and normalize experiences that are vastly different from their own. We need children to see and embrace children of different abilities, socioeconomic classes, races, religions, family structures, and sexual orientations in the books that they read. These representations are more powerful when racially and ethically diverse characters drive the storyline. It isn’t enough for racial and ethnic diversity to be displayed through nameless background characters. Kids need honest multidimensional characters represented in the books they read.

Jewish children need stories that reflect the diversity of the experiences of the Jewish people. We need books that span Jewish history and books that showcase the experiences of contemporary Jewish life.

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