Friendly eye contact between characters rivets readers’ attention in this warm retelling of a traditional Jewish folktale where a good shah tests a poor man’s faith by throwing roadblocks in his path. The shah is curious to learn how the man will manage. Decrees stop the shoemaker from being able to mend shoes in the street, then from being able to carry water or cut wood. The cheerful shoemaker is confident that God is with him and that he will discover a new way to earn a living. Each day, the resourceful shoemaker finds new work. Each night, the shah in disguise stops by to see how his friend is doing. The reader knows “everything will turn out as it should,” but there is the breath-holding moment when the shah has the shoemaker drafted into his royal guard where he will not receive pay for an entire month. The shoemaker sells the silver sword he has been given and replaces it with one made of wood, so that he and his wife will be able to eat. The next day, upon the shah’s command, the leader of the guard tells the poor man that he will need to execute a thief. The shoemaker prays and comes up with a solution so perfect that the shah takes him on as royal adviser.
Generous, full-color paintings set the scene in an Afghani community. Happiness, a rug, cloth, and pillows color the poor shoemaker’s home; it does not look bleak. Subtle details in both text and art — the difference in head coverings, the mention of two Sabbath lamps, and the subtitle of the book — let the readers know that this pious shoemaker is Jewish. In a full page at the end, National Jewish Book Award winner Stampler describes the research and care that went into her retelling. It shows.
Sharon Elswit, author of The Jewish Story Finder, now resides in San Francisco, where she has been helping students visiting 826 Valencia locations around the city to write stories and poems and getting adults up and retelling Jewish folktales to share with their own spin.