Jewish tradition inspires this original tale about Schmuel the shoemaker, called Poor Stupid Schmuel by the townsfolk of Plotchnik because of his habit of forgetting to charge his customers. When a 40-day (and 40-night) drought threatens the town, the rabbi and other worthies pray for rain, but only when Schmuel prays does rain indeed fall. The rain continues for another 40 days and nights; once again, only Schmuel's prayers restore balance. A dream shows the rabbi that Schmuel is one of the 36 righteous men who, according to legend, are born to every generation (lamed-vav is Hebrew for 36). But when the townspeople go to Schmuel's shop, he has disappeared: a Lamed-vavnik's identity must remain secret. As in their previous Jewish folktales Dybbuk and The Angel's Mistake, Prose and Podwal bring an unusual agility to their work. The text unspools its mystical themes within familiar grooves -- a butcher, baker and candlestick maker join their prayers to those of the rabbi; the wind howls and a cold wind blows out the lamps and candles as the congregants beg God to stop the rain. And even when depicting the downpour, Podwal's art -- spontaneous in its lines, Chagallian in its referents -- feels light and springlike. Fresh and memorable. Ages 5-up.
While this legend is of Jewish origin, the ideals of righteousness and equality among human beings (wealthy and poor, learned and simple) are inherent in many religious and cultural teachings throughout the world. Poor Schmuel, the town cobbler of Plotchnik, has a reputation for doing stupid things, which are actually acts of kindness. When a drought threatens the town, he alone is able to communicate with God, first bringing rain and then making the rain cease. The Rabbi eventually realizes that Schmuel is a Lamed-vavnik, one of the 36 righteous individuals living in the world who do good deeds. As the legend goes, once their existence is discovered, they disappear. And so it is with Schmuel. Prose, who cites several sources, uses the simple style of the storyteller to tell this tale, which makes it an excellent read-aloud. By successfully avoiding a heavy-handed lesson, she allows children to discover the meaning for themselves. Podwal uses gouache and colored pencils to create both the smeary look of oils and the flatness of tempera. His abstract paintings are done primarily in earthy tones of brown and sky blue, and the pictures are filled with representations of Jewish symbols. Despite these images, however, this accessible tale has universal appeal and will provide enjoyment as well as food for discussion. -- Susan Scheps, Shaker Heights Public Library, Ohio
In the small town of Plotchnik, which is suffering from 40 days of drought, the Rabbi and all the worthy members of the community have prayed for rain with no success. When Schmuel the Shoemaker -- secretly called Poor Stupid Schmuel for his tendency to fix shoes for free -- utters a simple prayer for help, rain pours down for 40 days and nights. The townspeople, now faced with a flood, pray for relief; but only Schmuel's gentle prayer from the back of the synagogue brings an end to the rain. The puzzled Rabbi ponders these events, and that night he has a dream in which 36 candles burn in menorahs and 36 men, including Poor Schmuel, sit at a banquet in the sky under 36 stars. The next morning, the Rabbi tells the townspeople that their own Poor Schmuel is one of the Lamed-vavniks, 36 holy people living lives of such goodness that their prayers have God's ear. When they rush to welcome this marvel (and possibly turn him into a tourist attraction), they find the cobbler shop closed and Schmuel disappeared into the humble anonymity from which he came. When a new shoemaker named Yakov comes to their town, people are very kind to him. 'After all, you never know.' Podwal's glowing gems of illustrations capture the reverence and mystery of this legend, and nowhere better than in the spread of 36 tiny, faceless figures going about their work in the world.
Prose delivers her moral gently, offering children a new way to look at the poor and the homeless. . . .[she] suggests that we treat everyone with respect -- just in case. -- The New York Times Book Review