Illus­tra­tion by Renia Met­alli­nou from Zhen Yu and the Snake, cropped, cour­tesy of the author

As a moth­er, I was, as one would expect, extra­or­di­nar­i­ly con­tem­pla­tive when nam­ing my chil­dren. Pic­ture book authors, and fic­tion writ­ers gen­er­al­ly, do the same for our char­ac­ters. By giv­ing them names, we give them a past, a present, and a future. They link us to our ances­tors; they afford us agency in the present; and they allow us to be remem­bered as far more than some­one else’s daugh­ter or wife. One of the many things I love about writ­ing pic­ture books is that I have per­mis­sion to do all of these. I can go back and write the sto­ries of the girls in bib­li­cal texts who weren’t giv­en sto­ries of their own. I can give them names, too, as part of a grow­ing trend, in pic­ture books, of rein­ter­pret­ing these texts from a fem­i­nist per­spec­tive — and, in a sense, cre­at­ing mod­ern midrash. 

My first exper­i­ment with this was many years ago, when I read the sto­ry of Jepthah’s daugh­ter in my uni­ver­si­ty class, Gen­der and Jew­ish Women in His­tor­i­cal Per­spec­tive with Dr. Judith Baskin. I wrote this unnamed girl a poem. The sto­ry stayed with me, the rhythm of the daughter’s tim­brel, the echo of her lamen­ta­tions. It still does. I can pic­ture her clear­ly. While it’s often referred to as the sto­ry of Jepthah’s daugh­ter, this is a mis­nomer. She was mere­ly a nar­ra­tive device placed for read­ers to extrap­o­late some les­son, per­haps the fol­ly of her father or the pro­scrip­tion on mak­ing vows or to reit­er­ate the sta­tus of women. As I learned in Gen­der and Jew­ish Women in His­tor­i­cal Per­spec­tive so many years ago, women in Judaism often fared bet­ter than their non-Jew­ish coun­ter­parts, but Jepthah’s daugh­ter most cer­tain­ly did not fall into this gen­er­al­iza­tion. After all, she’s allowed to be sac­ri­ficed. She’s no Isaac, and God doesn’t inter­vene. Fur­ther­more, it’s not even the loss of her own life for which we hear her lament, but rather her wast­ed vir­gin­i­ty, a com­men­tary on the val­ue of a young woman whose pur­pose is unful­filled nev­er hav­ing had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be a wife or mother. 

Despite many years of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion pri­or to this class, I had nev­er heard of Jepthah and cer­tain­ly not of his daugh­ter. At that moment, I sud­den­ly real­ized that there were numer­ous oth­er name­less girls and women that our texts only hint­ed at, whose names and sto­ries I would nev­er know and whom yet I couldn’t stop think­ing about.

While Jepthah’s daugh­ter will nev­er come of age, Jew­ish fem­i­nist pic­ture books have. Pic­ture books tack­le com­plex emo­tions, ideas, and events and pro­vide com­men­tary in a man­ner acces­si­ble for young chil­dren; they edu­cate and enlight­en with­out being didac­tic. And they can give names and sto­ries to those girls for­mer­ly denied them in our ancient texts. 

In my new book, Zhen Yu and the Snake (illus­trat­ed by Renia Met­alli­nou, Kar-Ben, 2023), I retell the sto­ry of Rab­bi Akiva’s daugh­ter and the snake, set­ting the tale in twelfth-cen­tu­ry Kaifeng, Chi­na. Rab­bi Akiva’s daugh­ter and the snake is a small and often over­looked sto­ry in the Tal­mud (Shab­bat 156b). Like Jepthah’s daugh­ter, she too is unnamed and is defined only by her role rel­a­tive to men (daugh­ter and then wife) because she too wasn’t seen as impor­tant as an indi­vid­ual. It gave me great sat­is­fac­tion to be able to name her in my ver­sion – Zhen Yu or Pre­cious Jade. I had in mind the song Eshet Chay­il” which details the attrib­ut­es of the ide­al­ized Jew­ish wife: A woman of val­or who can find? For her price is far above rubies” (Proverbs 31:10 – 31). The lit­tle we know of Rab­bi Akiva’s daugh­ter, like Zhen Yu, embod­ied these ideals.

In the Tal­mud, we learn that a for­tune teller warns Rab­bi Aki­va that his daugh­ter will be bit­ten by a snake on her wed­ding day and die. No par­tic­u­lar pre­cau­tions are tak­en to pro­tect her nor does she show any propen­si­ty to defend her­self. We are told only that she was wor­ried. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, seem­ing­ly no one else was. Instead, on her wed­ding day, she acci­den­tal­ly kills the snake when she places her orna­men­tal hair­pin into the wall for safe­keep­ing so that she can give a gift to a beg­gar. The les­son being char­i­ty will save from death” (Proverbs 10:2). 

When draft­ing Zhen Yu and the Snake, I first imag­ined anoth­er ver­sion, where Zhen Yu goes to great lengths to save her­self. I ini­tial­ly wrote her as a woman who active­ly avoids being bit­ten by a snake, some­thing notice­ably absent in the Tal­mud, and echo­ing the Yid­dish proverb – hope for a mir­a­cle, but do not rely on one. 

Ulti­mate­ly, my self-actu­al­ized Zhen Yu didn’t make it to the page. While from a con­tem­po­rary lens, the Talmud’s ver­sion is unset­tling, I let aspects of it stand and Zhen Yu’s role remains tra­di­tion­al in my retelling. But by giv­ing her a name she gains more pow­er. Read­ers are giv­en a glimpse into a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Kaifeng, believed to have been estab­lished dur­ing the Song dynasty (some­where between the ninth and twelfth cen­turies) by Per­sian Silk Road Traders. It is here where a chance meet­ing with a for­tune teller occurs as a result of Zhen Yu wan­der­ing off in the mar­ket. While this is a much more sub­tle reimag­in­ing than the some­what brash Zhen Yu I first pic­tured, I don’t allow her to mere­ly pas­sive­ly wor­ry. The warn­ing about the snake is with­held from Zhen Yu and the deci­sion not to act is placed sole­ly on her father instead. 

I sud­den­ly real­ized that there were numer­ous oth­er name­less girls and women that our texts only hint­ed at, whose names and sto­ries I would nev­er know and whom yet I couldn’t stop think­ing about.

The approach I took in Zhen Yu is quite dif­fer­ent from the approach I took in my pic­ture book Count­ing of Naamah: A Math­e­mat­i­cal Tale on Noah’s Ark (illus­trat­ed by Mary Reaves Uhles, Inter­galac­tic Afiko­man, 2023). In this retelling I take great lib­er­ties and bring the past into the present. Warn­ing, this is an inter­pre­ta­tion that one needs a sense of humor to appre­ci­ate; this is a Naamah who devel­ops the pro­to­type for the first life preserver. 

I thor­ough­ly decon­struct the flood sto­ry as we know it and allow Naamah to be smart, cre­ative, and indus­tri­ous. The name Naamah means pleas­ant, and sug­gests the role she and oth­er women were expect­ed to have. I invite read­ers to set aside their pre­con­ceived notions and accept that, though her name meant pleas­ant (and she was very nice), Naamah was known best for being clever.” 

Unlike Jepthah’s daugh­ter and Rab­bi Akiva’s daugh­ter, how­ev­er, Naamah is known in the text for being a wife. Her name, how­ev­er, is ren­dered to near obscu­ri­ty , as she isn’t explic­it­ly named in the flood sto­ry in the Torah. Noah is instruct­ed to bring your sons, and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.” We are told the three sons names, but it is only through midrash that we learn Naamah’s.

Naamah is not specif­i­cal­ly men­tioned as being mer­it­ed as wor­thy to be saved from the flood as Noah is, rather she is just named as Tubal-cain’s sis­ter. Inter­est­ing­ly, she is not only Tubal-cain’s sis­ter, but also the half-sis­ter of Jabal and Jubal though that isn’t explic­it­ly stat­ed. Giv­en the extra­or­di­nary tal­ents and con­tri­bu­tions to civ­i­liza­tion of all three of her broth­ers as the inven­tors of music, tools, and ani­mal hus­bandry (as per tra­di­tion­al midrash), it was impos­si­ble for me not to imag­ine Naamah as being at least equal­ly capa­ble of invent­ing and cre­at­ing as her broth­ers, had she been giv­en the chance. 

While Count­ing on Naamah is a wild ride where out­ra­geous antics ensue, it’s also a mod­ern com­men­tary on the blank spaces between the text, where a woman, vir­tu­al­ly unnamed but pleas­ant enough to be saved, lived her life. 

Quite sim­i­lar­ly, in Queen Vashti’s Com­fy Pants by Leah Berkowitz (illus­trat­ed by Ruth Ben­nett, Apples & Hon­ey Press), Berkowitz takes read­ers on a fun, frol­ick­ing adven­ture in the Per­sian King Ahasuerus’s court where the sit­u­a­tion for women was any­thing but. All we real­ly know of Vashti in Megillat Esther is that she threw a lav­ish ball for the women and then refused to come to the king when he beck­oned. For this refusal a dec­la­ra­tion is made, If it please Your Majesty, let a roy­al edict be issued by you, and let it be writ­ten into the laws of Per­sia and Media, so that it can­not be abro­gat­ed, that Vashti shall nev­er enter the pres­ence of King Aha­suerus.” Vashti los­es her title and some say her life. 

In her pic­ture book, Berkowitz is able to give Queen Vashti a tremen­dous amount of agency as Vashti leads the oth­er women out of court to a life where they are not bound by court rules or dress codes. This too is midrash. Queen Vashti’s Com­fy Pants allows her anoth­er change, rewrit­ing her with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties and allow­ing her to stand on her own as a fem­i­nist icon. More­over she can now wear com­fy pants with wild prints. And all this is mar­velous­ly accom­plished in rhyme and col­or­ful, engag­ing illustrations. 

In the same vein, Jane Yolen in Miri­am at the Riv­er (illus­trat­ed by Khoa Le, Kar-Ben Pub­lish­ing, 2020), refo­cus­es the nar­ra­tive to fea­ture Miri­am. Miri­am, unlike many oth­er women, is already pre­sent­ed as a woman of action and one that has a voice. We’re told in the Torah that like her broth­ers, she too is a prophet, one of sev­en women out of the fifty-five prophets explic­it­ly named in the text. It might even be argued that she has more of a role than her broth­er Aaron. Even as a prophet­ess, though, God reminds her that she is not like Moses. When prophet so of God rise among you, I make Myself known to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream. Not so with My ser­vant Moses; he is trust­ed through­out My house­hold. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plain­ly and not in rid­dles…” (Num­bers 12:6 – 8). 

Yolen, how­ev­er, in her book also allows God to speak to Miri­am. But I ask God any­way. Like a soft breeze, that com­forts in the mid­dle of an Egypt­ian sum­mer, God whis­pers in my ear…” God’s response to Miri­am, in Miri­am at the Riv­er, allows her to feel at ease with the deci­sion to place Moses in the Nile.

Yolen’s sto­ry focus­es on one small part of Miriam’s ear­ly life and expands the reader’s under­stand­ing of that key moment. Had she not placed Moses in the riv­er, per­haps none of the sto­ry would unfold the way that it did. But what did it feel like to place him there? Yolen takes what we know of Miri­am from midrash and allows us to under­stand her not only in the words of Tal­mu­dic sages, but in her own voice. She gives Miri­am an inner dia­logue that isn’t present in the Torah. We are able to stand with her at the riv­er and expe­ri­ence it through her eyes. In Miri­am, Yolen found the per­fect woman to add intent to her actions. 

All of these girls and women could have been inven­tors, rulers, poets, or war­riors had they been born at anoth­er time. Had the women in our texts been giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to write their own sto­ries and to reach their poten­tial, those are sto­ries that I most cer­tain­ly would have loved to read. But they did­n’t, so the task of rein­vent­ing their lives and inter­pret­ing the blank spaces is left to us. 

Illus­tra­tion by Renia Met­alli­nou, cropped, cour­tesy of the author

Eri­ca Lyons is chair of the Hong Kong Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety and is the Hong Kong Del­e­gate to World Jew­ish Con­gress. She’s also the founder and man­ag­er of PJ Library Hong Kong. She lives in Hong Kong.