Chinese Jewish connections go back a millennium, probably first during the Song dynasty when Persian Jewish traders traveled along the Silk Road and reached ancient Kaifeng, as Erica Lyons writes in her author’s note at the end of her new picture book, Zhen Yu and the Snake, illustrated by Reina Metallinou. This small Jewish community remained in Kaifeng and has all but intermarried and assimilated, while maintaining the Jewish dietary laws of not eating pork or shellfish and customs like wearing blue skullcaps (which differ from the white skullcaps worn by Chinese Muslims).
In Zhen Yu and the Snake, Lyons sets her story in Kaifeng and bases it on the Talmudic tale of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter and a snake. One doesn’t need to be well-versed in the Talmud or know anything about Judaism for that matter to understand and enjoy this story, a gripping tale that is enhanced with lively illustrations from Metallinou. Together the story and images make for a remarkable and unique picture book.
The title page shows an engaging preview of the story as silhouettes of travelers—young and old—and camels walk along a trail. The travelers and camels come to life in color on the first couple of pages of the story, the camels draped in colorful fabrics and the travelers dressed in robes and hats of earth tones that complement the towering gates of a Chinese town. The accompanying text gives a concise introduction of Kaifeng Jews.
Long ago, when people still traveled in caravans along the Silk Road to the city of Kaifeng, there lived a little girl named Zhen Yu.
Zhen Yu’s ancestors had come to Kaifeng with camels, which they piled high with rugs, linens, and their Jewish holy books and scrolls. They were warmly welcomed by the emperor, and they decided to settle there.
This is where the Rabbi Akiva parable begins. Zhen Yu and her father Li Jian go to the market one Friday morning to buy ingredients for Shabbat dinner.
Kaifeng’s market was bustling, filled with travelers from all over the world speaking different languages. Caravan bells rang. The sharp, sweet scents of fresh spices filled the air.
Zhen Yu stops at a jade stall to admire the intricate animal charms for sale. When Li Jian realizes Zhen Yu is no longer by his side, he panics and starts to run through the market, looking for his daughter. The illustrations at this point include colorful birds for sale, including a blue and teal peacock in full plumage. Li Jian doesn’t see where he’s going and bumps into an old man.
It turns out the old man is the Great Fortune-Teller of Chengdu. Lyons as narrator explains that Jews have their own traditions and do not believe in the same fortune-telling properties as their neighbors in Kaifeng, but Li Jian is desperate and will do anything to find Zhen Yu.
The Fortune-Teller of Chengdu tells Li Jian where to find Zhen Yu, but warns him that Zhen Yu will be bitten by a snake on her wedding day, even though that’s far into the future. Li Jian ignores this warning and rushes off to find his daughter. Yet at night snakes invade Li Jian’s dreams and he worries something bad will happen to Zhen Yu. He keeps the Fortune-Teller’s words to himself.
In both the Talmudic and Kaifeng stories, these cautionary words eventually come home to roost. The daughters are able to fend off these snakes thanks to their generosity and kindness.
By creatively and engagingly setting a Talmudic story in 12th-century Kaifeng, Lyons provides a reminder that the past was wider than we sometimes think, and that China was never as foreign a place as it still sometimes seems.