Merkos Book Finalist at National Jewish Book Awards

by E.J. Tansky - NEW YORK, NY

April 27, 2006

Likened to the Jewish Pulitzer Prize, the National Jewish Book Awards have chosen Merkos Publication's "The Last Pair of Shoes" as a runner-up for the Louis Posner Memorial 2005 Prize.

Judges selected "The Last Pair of Shoes" in the category of illustrated children’s books, for skillfully drawing the readers in and managing to “convey the moral value” without “being preachy.”

Author Sashi Fridman, a Chabad-Lubavitch representative living in Moscow, Russia, was not at the National Jewish Book Awards ceremony last night, but her delight in the award comes through across the continents. Not only is the award a pat on the back for Fridman’s first foray into children’s prose, but the award promises a wider audience for “values of kindness and sharing the book tries to convey.”

Librarians from around the country contact the National Jewish Book Council for their list of award winners and finalists which were honored at last night's ceremony at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. “They use them as a guideline for ordering” their Jewish book selections, said Program Director Miri Pomerantz. Copies of the book are dressed up with the National Jewish Book Award’s glossy seal.

Readers of "The Last Pair of Shoes" will encounter a story at once “Jewish and universal, rich in meaning, warm and so evocative of an important era,” said Rabbi Yosef B. Friedman, executive director of Merkos/Kehot Publications, the Chabad Lubavitch publishing house. “We are very gratified that our work has been recognized.”

This is Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch's first nod from the National Jewish Book Council, but its published works have been winning plaudits from educators, the scholarly and lay learned public for decades. Established by the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and directed (from its inception) by his successor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, Merkos/Kehot has published thousands of works ranging from mysticism to children's picture books. “When Merkos representatives attend education conferences, teachers tell us how useful our chidlren's books are in their classes,” said Rabbi Friedman.

"The Last Pair of Shoes" will be helpful when teachers set upon the difficult task of teaching the painful history of Jews in the World War II era. Unlike other books that focus on life in concentration camps, the award-winning book is set in a Russian shtetl during World War II. It tells the story of an everyman, Shalva, who cobbles shoes to help his family survive after his father’s conscription into the Russian army. When a man in even more desperate straits casts his eyes on a pair fashioned from Shalva’s last scraps of leather, the shoemaker comes up with an ingenious idea to help an even poorer family in need.

Giants of the spirit in days past have much to say to today’s children. “Everyone has the power to give,” said Rabbi Friedman. “We have seen people rise to the occasion after tragedies, but we do not need to wait for a tsunami or a hurricane for the very human act of selfless giving to emerge.”

Sepia toned illustrations in "The Last Pair of Shoes," like snapshots in a family photo album by Seva, an illustrator also living in the former Soviet Union, are rich with period specific details. A glass of tea rests on rough-hewn wood table. The chronologically correct clothing, shoemaking tools and hairstyles add authenticity to the real-life message of the story.

Malky Sashitzky, 10, loved the illustrations she saw in a preview copy of "The Last Pair of Shoes," and the story got her thinking. “I don’t know if I would give away my last pair of shoes,” Malky said. “But I think it would be a good story to tell children, because it makes them think about becoming better people.”

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