A children's book to encourage young women to take an interest in science

Prof. Cwikel publishes "Mayufa and the Bone Lady", a children's book in English, Arabic and Hebrew on paleontology. The book encourages girls to engage into science.

The cover of Goldsmith’s book  (photo credit: Courtesy)
The cover of Goldsmith’s book
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Once upon a time, give or take a few million years ago, there were elephants, giraffes and alligators living near a lake in what is today Israel’s Arava desert. In the late 1970s, paleontologist Dr. Naomi Goldsmith, associated with Ben-Gurion University, carried out digs to comb the area for fossils, specifically elephant bones.
There she formed a friendship with two young Bedouin sisters who were herding sheep and enthusiastically helped her search. Mayufa and Safa called her the “Bone Lady.” And, indeed, to great excitement, one of the girls actually found a prehistoric elephant jaw.
Based on the story of that find, in 1981, Goldsmith decided to write a children’s book that would encourage children, especially girls, to take an interest in science. She wrote the text and commissioned a Bedouin artist to do the illustrations for the book, intended to appear in English, Arabic and Hebrew. But her book was never published.
Author Naomi GoldsmithAuthor Naomi Goldsmith
After her death in 2015, Goldsmith’s daughter, Prof. Julie Goldsmith Cwikel of the Ben-Gurion University Spitzer Department of Social Work decided to publish the book with new illustrations.
“This was a way to honor my mother,” she explains. “My mother did her doctorate in bone physiology in 1960 while she was raising four children,” said Cwikel, who is founder and director of the Center for Women’s Health Studies at Ben-Gurion University. “At the time she was the only woman in the University of California at Berkeley physiology department; she had a keen sense of how male academia treats women. When she moved to Israel in 1978, she reinvented herself as a paleontologist.”
At the time Goldsmith wrote the book, Bedouin boys attended school, but not girls, who often herded the family’s goats and sheep. Since then, there have been significant changes in Bedouin society, with large numbers of women being educated and some even getting advanced degrees. When she published the book, Cwikel kept the original text but added a “feminist” ending: Mayufa, now a botanist, is “looking for new medicines in plants that have always grown here in the Negev.” (Today the traditional Bedouin knowledge of desert herbs and natural healing remedies has been applied to a number of entrepreneurial projects.)
The expressive water color illustrations for “Mayufa and the Bone Lady” are by Nurit Serfaty, an award-winning Israeli illustrator of children’s books.
Delighted to have found a children’s book in three languages about paleontology, the Israeli Parks Authority has begun selling it in its gift shops around the country. Goldsmith’s original prehistoric elephant graveyard site is still being excavated and investigated by a team led by Hebrew University paleontologist Prof. Rivka Rabinovich.
The book has also been added to the list of recommended books for early childhood literature in Israel. “Unfortunately, the Bedouin women who have read the book are not that positive,” admits Cwikel. “Modern Bedouin women are less than keen that it shows little girls herding sheep.” Cwikel recalls 20 years ago one of her students had herded goats as a young girl. That was Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, today a famous activist in the Bedouin community and now completing her PhD. “She was her father’s favorite and he encouraged her to study.”
Cwikel is hoping to create a scholarship fund from any profits from the sale of the book to encourage young women in science. The book can be ordered online at www.zafra.co.il or by phone at 972-54-4534035