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A Talmudic tale gets a 12th-century Chinese twist in children’s book aimed at diverse Jewish readers



TAIPEI, Taiwan (JTA) — Rabbi Akiva’s daughter was destined for death on her wedding day, at least according to the star-gazers. So the early Jewish sage seemed resigned to his daughter’s fate.

But on the wedding day, Rabbi Akiva’s daughter offered a poor old man her portion of the wedding feast. That night, before going to bed, she removed her hairpin and stuck it in the wall. In the morning, she discovered that the hairpin had pierced the eye of a poisonous snake, which trailed after the pin as she pulled it from the wall.

“Charity saves from death,” Rabbi Akiva declared.

Erica Lyons doesn’t remember the first time she heard this Talmud story, but she can’t forget its many strange omissions and inconsistencies. What rabbi listened to astrologers? Why wasn’t Rabbi Akiva worried about his daughter’s fate? And why didn’t Rabbi Akiva’s daughter have a name of her own?

“It sort of made me think of Jephtha’s daughter, this other girl who is going to potentially be sacrificed for the sake of a story, of a lesson of some sort,” said Lyons, referencing another biblical character from the Book of Judges.

Lyons’ new children’s book, “Zhen Yu and the Snake,” published last week with rich illustrations by Renia Metallinou, seeks to fill in those gaps — with a twist. The story is set in 12th-century Kaifeng, China, the city where Persian Jewish merchants established China’s first Jewish community. Its main characters are all Chinese Jews — Rabbi Akiva becomes Li Jian and his daughter finally gets a name, too: Zhen Yu, which means “precious jade” in Chinese. The astrologer in the story becomes a fortune-teller from the Chinese city of Chengdu, which was home to several famous fortune-tellers at the time.

At the time, Kaifeng was China’s vibrant Song Dynasty capital. Its location on the Yellow River, not far from the Silk Road, made it a commercial center bustling with merchants. The Silk Road trading route had attracted hundreds of Jews to China, who settled there around the 9th or 10th century and peacefully worshiped their own god for centuries.

In Lyons’ version of the story, Zhen Yu is the main character, who lives a life of virtue long before getting married. Common in Chinese culture, the presence of the fortune-teller feels natural in the Kaifeng market, where he reveals Zhen Yu’s fate to Li Jian on an afternoon before Shabbat.

Lyons stays loyal to the source text, highlighting the characters’ observance of Jewish law and the importance of Jewish values in their lives. But the setting and characters make the story more accessible to non-Ashkenazi readers, she said.

“The Talmud belongs to all Jews around the world,” said Tani Prell, creative director at Be’chol Lashon, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity in Judaism, primarily through education. Encouraging teachers to include diverse Jewish stories is “a hard thing to do” when those resources are limited, Prell said. “So I think it’s beautiful that Erica is creating the resources that do have such a direct impact on the lived experiences of young Jews of color.”

A page from “Zhen Yu and the Snake.” (Courtesy of Erica Lyons)

Lyons, who has been living in Hong Kong for over two decades, had always wanted to be a writer. In college, she majored in English and Jewish Studies but began her career as a lawyer for an insurance company in New York. When she moved to Hong Kong with her husband in 2002, she saw the opportunity to get back to her undergrad roots.

Today, she is deeply involved with Hong Kong’s historic Jewish community, whose foundations were built by Baghdadi-Jewish dynasties such as the Sassoons and the Kadoories in the 19th and 20th centuries. The city’s Jewish population has fluctuated over the years but remains about 3,000-4,000 strong today with six congregations to choose from. Lyons chairs the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society and serves as the Hong Kong delegate to the World Jewish Congress.

As a Persian-Ashkenazi Jew who is raising Chinese children, Lyons has prioritized the inclusion of Jews of diverse experiences in her work in Hong Kong. As a journalist and founder of Asian Jewish Life, a magazine that spotlighted Jewish stories in Asia from 2008 until 2016, she has always been fascinated by “Jewish stories in the margins” — little-known bits of Jewish history or traditions that have gone overlooked by the Jewish majority living in the West.

Today, few families in Kaifeng still observe Judaism and those who do have been forced underground as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of repressing and limiting a range of religions. Judaism is not one of the country’s five officially recognized religions (Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Daoism and Islam), and Kaifeng’s Jews are seen by the state as part of the Han Chinese ethnic majority — not Jews. Little Jewish iconography remains on the old streets of Kaifeng today, and a majority of the country’s Jewish population are expatriates living in commercial centers such as Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen.

Lyons’ book comes at a time when Jewish stories from Asia — especially stories of Jewish escape and survival in China and Japan during World War II — are receiving a wave of attention. In this year alone, stories about Jewish refugees in Asia have been the subject of multiple novels, an exhibition in New York City, a musical and two high-profile symphony performances.

In these stories, China is often a temporary backdrop against which Western Jewish stories are set. There is less awareness of the history of the Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng, Lyons said.

“In this way, I was able to educate people without being didactic in any way. I didn’t just pick a random city in China and plop my characters into it. I picked a Jewish community, and I think a lot of people are not aware that [Kaifeng] was a historic community,” she said.

Erica Lyons is also the chair of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society. (Courtesy of Lyons)

Books for young readers about Chinese or Asian Jews, in particular, have been rare. But the widening availability of literature about diverse Jews in recent years is creating more demand for these stories, said Prell. 

Nicholas Zane, a master’s student at Dartmouth University whose family immigrated to the United States from China with the help of a Jewish family in the Catskills, has been developing accessible information about the Kaifeng Jews through a website, nonfiction books and picture books in Chinese and English. “Two New Years,” a picture book published last month by Richard Ho, tells the story of a family that celebrates both Rosh Hashanah in the fall and Chinese New Year in the spring.

“There’s these stories that people don’t know, and to be able to tell them and bring them to Jewish children, and children generally, is really incredible,” Lyons said.

But there are still gaps, Lyons said, and she has been busy trying to help fill them with several other forthcoming picture books on the way. “Counting on Naamah,” also released on Sept. 5, turns Noah’s wife Naamah into a mathematical genius. In the coming year, her other releases will tell the stories of an 1881 Yemenite aliyah journey, the Indian Bnei Israel Jews (illustrated by renowned Indian-Jewish artist Siona Benjamin) and a Chinese-Jewish girl who must figure out how to celebrate Sukkot and the mid-Autumn festival on the same night.

“Racial diversity amongst the Jewish people is not a new thing. It has been there. That’s another reason why I also think it’s very, very cool for Erica’s books, that with ‘Zhen Yu and the Snake’ and ‘Naamah,’ it’s these stories that have been part of Jewish tradition over time,” said Prell.

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A queer Israeli textile artist’s Lavender Diaspora sukkah explores identity in Brooklyn




(New York Jewish Week) — On Friday evening, several dozen people huddled underneath umbrellas and raincoats in a new sukkah in Brooklyn that had survived the day’s record-setting rainstorm

The sukkah, created by queer textile artist Hilla Shapira, was unharmed: Its light purple walls were made of ripstop, a lightweight and water-resistant fabric. Its soft and pillowy decorations — which included Jewish symbols like hamsas as well as depictions of the four species — were made of dacron, a durable, polyester batting that held up in the deluge as well. 

Shapira said the project — titled Lavender Diaspora — was meant to channel her identities as a queer person who grew up in a religious household in Israel, and also as an immigrant in the United States, where she studied art in Michigan before moving to Brooklyn.

“I try to find parallel relationships between what it is to be queer and Jewish, and to be a person from Israel,” Shapira, 33, told the New York Jewish Week. “It’s especially relevant when we’re talking about Sukkot, which is a holiday that the Jewish people were celebrating in the in-between space, between Egypt and Israel — they were on the way somewhere, but in something that is temporary and stuck in this kind of forever nomadism.” 

Shapira holding one of her hamsas as she builds Lavender Diaspora in Prospect Heights. (Courtesy The Neighborhood.)

Speaking at a Shabbat dinner hosted by The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life, the Brooklyn-based organization that commissioned the sukkah, Shapira said she had designed her structure to celebrate communities that find themselves on the outskirts of society. 

She was speaking on the first night of Sukkot, the weeklong holiday in which Jews build a temporary structure called a sukkah, meant to commemorate in part the structures that the Israelites lived in as they wandered through the desert from Egypt to Israel. Throughout the holiday, which ends at sundown on Saturday, Jews eat, pray and even sleep in the sukkah. 

The Neighborhood has partnered with 12 other Jewish communities and organizations to celebrate and host events in the unique sukkah, including Romemu Brooklyn, Lab/Shul, Jews of Color Initiative and the Prospect Heights Shul. 

“We were really excited to think about not just a sukkah as an art object, but really also as a place to bring different communities and groups of people together in this temporary structure,” Rebecca Guber, the founding director of The Neighborhood, told the New York Jewish Week. 

“We also thought about what were some different perspectives that we could bring into this stuff,” she added. “We wanted something that brings in young families, that would be comfortable if you’re a more observant Jew and that also feels kind of wild.”

Located in the courtyard of Luria Academy, a Jewish day school in Prospect Heights, students will use the sukkah for their meals and programming during the day. In the evenings and on the weekend, The Neighborhood will use the sukkah for its own programming, which includes the launch of a Sukkot zine in partnership with Ayin Press, a family-friendly music jam, a dance event and more. 

As a queer woman who grew up in an Orthodox home in Israel — as well as an immigrant to the United States — Shapira said she’s often searched for a sense of belonging. “The sukkah I tried to create is a space that is offering an alternative, or making a suggestion for a communal space for all the ‘shoulders’ of society,” she said. 

Lavender, the color of the walls of the sukkah, is a symbol of LGBTQ resistance and activism. The other half of the title, Diaspora, refers to both the dispersion of the Jewish people as well as the feeling of marginalization experienced by Jews, LBGTQ people and other minorities — the sukkah is meant to be a temporary space that alleviates that feeling.

The Neighborhood is a community hub that primarily partners with other Jewish organizations to create innovative Jewish cultural and spiritual events for Jewish life. The Lavender Diaspora sukkah was funded by UJA-Federation New York. (UJA-Federation is also a funder of 70 Faces Media, the parent company of the New York Jewish Week.)

“What really resonates for us is the way that this sukkah welcomes everyone in — whatever position you feel you occupy in the Jewish community — maybe some people feel like insiders, other feel like outsiders, we really hope this can be a place where many different people can feel welcomed, and that their perspectives and identities are being honored,” Guber said.

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Displaced by ethnic violence, India’s Bnei Menashe Jews construct sukkahs nonetheless




(JTA) — The temporary shelters that Jews erect during the holiday of Sukkot are meant in part to recall a time when Jews had nowhere permanent to live. In Northeast India, that symbolism is heavy with additional meaning this year.

That’s because large numbers of Bnei Menashe, the Jewish community that lives there, have fled their homes in the state of Manipur since ethnic unrest broke out in early May.

According to the Israeli organization Shavei Israel, about 2,000 people from the Jewish community have been displaced. A different nonprofit that works with the community, Degel Menashe, cites a smaller number, 700.

But either way, the community has been ravaged, with three locations that have been home to large numbers of Bnei Menashe decimated in the violence. Synagogues and homes have burned to the ground, and the number of displaced people has only grown with time.

Now, as the conflict enters its sixth month, what many believed would be temporary displacements in the Manipur hills or the neighboring state of Mizoram are becoming permanent.

“Despite these challenging times for the Bnei Menashe and even in the farthest reaches of northeastern India, they have continued to uphold the ancient tradition of building Sukkot in honor of the festival,” said Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, which helps “lost tribe” communities return to Israel.

Shavei Israel distributed pictures showing members of the community constructing sukkahs out of bamboo. Their efforts come as their own safety in their areas where they live is in question — or already compromised.

“[For] the Bnei Menashe and the rest of the people who have left Imphal, I don’t think there is any chance of them returning back because there is no security,” said Isaac Thangjom, the Israel-based director of Degel Menashe, which assists Bnei Menashe communities in Israel and India, referring to Manipur’s capital city. “If you ask me honestly, the separation is complete.”

The Bnei Menashe identify as descendants of a “lost tribe” group, tracing their origins to the Israelite tribe of Menasseh. In 2005, a chief rabbi of Israel affirmed their identity as a “lost tribe” group with historic Jewish ties, but researchers have not found sufficient evidence to back the claim. Bnei Menashe Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 1990s, and because of their “lost tribe” status, they all undergo formal Orthodox conversions upon arrival. Around 5,000 remain in the states of Manipur and Mizoram today, and about 5,000 have already immigrated to Israel.

Many have struggled to gain entry into Israel over the past two decades, and they are now asking the Jewish state to expedite the immigration process to help them escape the violence.

Israeli authorities have yet to comment publicly about the situation and did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Israel has recently been seeking to advance its relations with India.

Conflict erupted in May when tribal groups in Manipur launched a protest against the ethnic majority Meitei’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which is traditionally reserved for minority tribes. The Bnei Menashe Jews belong to the minority Kuki tribe.

The Kukis (about 16% of the population and majority Christian) say the Meiteis (53% and majority Hindu) already have outsized privilege and political representation in Manipur.

A destroyed house is seen seen in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur following the clashes between Meiteis and Kukis, Aug. 11, 2023. (Biplov Bhuyan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

According to local reports, unofficial “but very real” borders have been drawn between what have become Kuki and Meitei areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for failing to control the situation. In August, opposition lawmakers called for a no-confidence vote over Modi’s handling of the situation, but it was easily defeated.

Some 190 people have died in the conflict since May, according to local media, including at least one Bnei Menashe community member. Over 60,000 are displaced.

Several other Bnei Menashe Jews are hospitalized with injuries, according to Shavei Israel.

In the face of displacement, the Bnei Menashe Jews have remained religiously observant, even as some fled with nothing more than their prayer books and the clothes on their backs, a Mizoram Jewish community member told JTA in June.

“It was so sudden,” said Ariella Haokip, a Bnei Menashe community member taking shelter in Thingdawl, Mizoram. “Funds were sent to us to buy special items for Rosh Hashanah and now for Sukkot. In spite of our misery, it is comforting to think that we are remembered.”

Some are currently staying at government shelters, others at schools and homes of other community members, or rented homes paid for by nonprofit groups. In Thingdawl, Mizoram, one young member has begun organizing Hebrew classes for displaced members, said Thangjom.

Members of India’s Bnei Menashe community pose outside a structure under construction as a semi-permanent dwelling for nine families displaced by ethnic violence in the Manipur region of India. (Courtesy Degel Menashe)

Both Shavei Israel and Degel Menashe have been working since May to provide continued support to the Bnei Menashe Jews through donations of food, mattresses, mosquito nets, infant formula, medicines and other necessities. Both organizations have arranged shelters for displaced families. Additional financial support has poured in from Jewish and Christian organizations in the United States and Israel.

For some, the High Holiday season also represents a new beginning, as Degel Menashe races to construct homes for several Bnei Menashe families. Lalam Hangshing, chairman of the Bnei Menashe Council-India, donated a piece of land of about 200 acres in Churachandpur on which nine homes are being constructed.

“It was hoped that it could be ready by Rosh Hashanah but there were some unforeseen delays and challenges,” said Thangjom. “Each family will be allotted a piece of land to grow or raise something of their choice so that it can be a source of livelihood for them.”

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Alice Shalvi pioneered religious feminism in Israel. Everyone else is still catching up.




(JTA) — I first met Alice Shalvi, the mother of religious feminism in Israel, in the mid-1990s during a meeting of ICAR, the International Coalition of Agunah Rights, a coalition that she founded to advocate for women denied a religious divorce by their husbands. She was in her early 70s at the time, and had been fighting for agunah rights for 20 years.

I was in my mid-20s, and new to the cause. I was there as co-chair of Mavoi Satum, which a group of us founded in 1995. This coalition was meant to be advancing systemic solutions to this awful problem. But, of course, we were stuck. As stuck then as we are now.

At one point in the meeting, Professor Shalvi started to cry. “I am 72 years old. I have been talking about this for so long,” she said, “and nothing is changing.” She was crying because the suffering of women didn’t seem to matter to our people. Then she turned to me and said, “It’s up to you and your generation to fix this.”

At the time, I felt her passing the mantle, and I didn’t want to let her down. But I’m sure I did. At least on this front. On others, too, despite our best efforts.

Shalvi, who died Monday morning in Israel at age 96, fought crucial fights decades before the rest of the world caught up with her, before the religious community had any kind of language for what she was doing, before there was any kind of feminist movement to speak of in Israel

She pioneered feminist ideas in Israel in the early 1970s when there were only a handful of women doing such work — Marcia Freedman, Naomi Chazan and a few others. And she was the only one coming from the religious world, and able to see the need and potential for change before everyone else. 

Starting in 1975, Shalvi began running the Pelech School for Haredi Girls, a religious feminist school, before Orthodox feminism existed as a movement — before Women of the Wall, before women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, years before Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Kolech, Israel’s Religious Women’s Forum, existed, before anyone even dared to put the words “feminist” and “religious” together in a sentence. Before even the Conservative movement had women rabbis. Everyone else is still catching up.  

She also worked in the non-religious arena, creating, in 1984, the first feminist lobby in Israel, the Israel Women’s Network, which still pioneers on many fronts.

She also dared to work on issues of peace, taking positions that were considered pas nisht, or “unsuitable,” in the religious world — and for the most part still are. She dared to see Palestinians, especially Palestinian women, as equal human beings. This was not a position that religious Israelis, or Israelis in general, were comfortable with. It’s still an uphill battle.  She spoke and acted from a place of humanity first. 

And she could remarkably work on a multitude of  fronts, all at once, including education, academia, advocacy, politics and peace.

Alice Hildegard Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, on Oct. 16, 1926. She, her mother and brother joined their father in London in 1934, and she later earned degrees in literature and social work. She immigrated to Israel in 1949, taught at Hebrew University and led efforts to create an English department at Ben-Gurion University. Denied the deanship because she was a woman, she mobilized female faculty members in protest.

Orthodox feminist activist Alice Shalvi, right and author Elana Sztokman in 2017, attending the ordination ceremony for Israeli rabbis at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. (Courtesy Elana Sztokman)

Professor Shalvi was my formal mentor when I was on the Jerusalem Fellows, a program in Jewish education. We would meet regularly and talk about feminism, politics, religion and Israel. It was a privilege to spend those hours in one-on-one conversations. Prof. Shalvi always talked to me with complete honesty, passion and belief in what she was working for. She entrusted me with her vision, and made me feel like she believed that I would hold it for her and continue to birth it in the world.

By the time changes started to take place in Orthodoxy for women — evidenced by Shira Hadasha, a Jerusalem congregation dedicated to halachah (Jewish law) and feminism, and Orthodox women in clergy roles — she had already moved on to the Conservative movement, serving as rector of what is now the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a graduate school and seminary associated with the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. She needed to go where her vision was valued and welcomed and celebrated, instead of where everything was a fight. She was highly criticized for that decision and was treated by some as a sort of traitor to the Orthodox feminist cause. But she deserved to be in a place that supported her and brought her comfort and respect, and she had earned that right.

She offered words of support for me when I took a similar leap and enrolled in Reform rabbinical school. Even though I am no longer in rabbinical school and do not associate with the Reform movement in any meaningful way, I do not regret the decision to step away from an Orthodox version of feminism and try on other hats. She inspired me and so many others to take leaps, be courageous, live from the heart and ignore the haters.

I am so glad that she found her well-deserved place in the world, and that she received many well-deserved honors and accolades along the way, including, in 1991, the Ministry of Education’s Education Prize in 1991 for teaching Talmud to girls and insisting that Pelech alumnae serve in either the IDF or the National Service. In 2007, she won the Israel Prize for her life’s work, and in 2019 a National Jewish Book Award for her memoir, “Never a Native.”

She left an incredible legacy of activism that has birthed generations of change agents in Israel.

I have often thought over the years that I wanted to be Alice Shalvi when I grew up. I loved her unstoppable courage, her ability to wear many hats, her resilience in standing up to the haters and naysayers, and her constant belief that she could make a difference. I’ve tried to follow that kind of path, though I have not had nearly the kind of strength and fortitude — and successes — that she had. But her personality and vision continue to have a permanent resting place in my heart. And I will continue to endeavor to carry her torch in this world.

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