The first book that I published – my entrée into the publishing industry – was a pocket Book of Psalms, Tehillim. In 1975, when I traveled from Israel to the Rebbe and had a private audience with him, I brought along a copy, and I submitted it to his secretary in advance.
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During the audience, the Rebbe reached into his drawer, took out the Tehillim, and leafed through it. He inquired about whether we had been successful in selling the books.
“Thank G-d,” I replied.
“I heard that it’s going well in the army,” he noted, meaning that the soldiers of the IDF sought after such Tehillims, for the spiritual protection they provided.
“Have you ever seen such a Chumash [Five Books of Moses] that also includes Rashi’s commentary?” he continued.
I replied that I had seen a Chumash of that size, published by Sinai, but without any biblical commentaries.
“There is such a Chumash with Rashi,” he informed me, “but I don’t know if the text they used for the commentary is accurate without mistakes.” For years, I searched for such a book, and I eventually found a miniature Chumash with Rashi, slightly larger than our Tehillim, published by “Levin-Epstein.”
I subsequently printed Tehillims of six different sizes. Computerized layout and printing was coming into its own in those days, which enabled me to produce clear, newly-typeset texts with beautiful letters. When my wife next visited the Rebbe, she brought him one of the new volumes and, in turn, the Rebbe presented her with a dollar bill “for your husband, the publisher.”
As my children grew up, I discovered a lack of quality children’s literature in the religious community. Storybooks generally lacked any meaningful traditional Jewish content, while the few that had been written for a religious readership incorporating Torah perspectives were mostly fictional, figments of their authors’ imaginations. I thought that it would be a good idea to publish authentic Jewish stories for children, based on classic sources and stories of tzaddikim throughout the ages. Once properly adapted for children and beautifully illustrated, they would no doubt have a positive impact on young readers.
When I next visited the Rebbe in 1977, I asked about publishing stories of Jewish sages. In the note I had prepared for our meeting, I asked if such a thing be worthwhile.
The Rebbe advised that in order to make my books stand out in the field, I adhere to the highest standards. “Consult with experts to ensure the illustrations will be professionally done, and make sure that the paper and printing are of high quality. Anything that advances education is certainly worth getting involved in.”
Israel had recently undergone a political revolution with the formation of a right-wing government under Menachem Begin, who had in turn appointed a religious Minister of Education, Zevulun Hammer. Against that background, the Rebbe gave me another piece of advice: “Since the school curriculum will be changed, it’s worth finding out the direction and goals the Ministry of Education intends to take.”
On returning to Israel, I reached out to the education official overseeing schoolbooks, and met with the special committee dealing with children’s books. One of the things they told me was that they were interested in focusing on Jewish sages from Sephardi communities. As a result, I was careful to include a great many stories about Sephardi sages in the series I went on to publish.
But first, I had to find the right illustrator. After a search, I found an artist who had worked on a biblical stories series and he was duly impressed by the project.
His name was Chaim (Henrik) Hechtkopf and he put his life and soul into the illustrations. He invested considerable thought into planning his drawings, ensuring they’d express what he wanted them to. At times, he conducted research so that the clothing would match the historical period of the location. His illustrations were not only deeply authentic, but were also filled with feeling and life.
Having settled on the artist, I found a suitable children’s author, and the first stories began to come out. We made every effort to print the little books in a professional, high quality way, as the Rebbe had instructed. Colored illustrations were sent to Italy, where they would undergo a process called color separation; a technology that did not yet exist in Israel. At first, we would send every new book to the Rebbe, and each time, we merited to receive a response, with a few words of acknowledgement, encouragement, and blessing.
In 1981, I had the honor of traveling to the Rebbe once again. When he asked who was marketing our books in Israel, I told him the name of a certain vendor.
“Is he just a bookseller, or also a distributor?” asked the Rebbe. “Does he know how to market them?”
I explained that he has a bookstore, but he was also involved in wholesale distribution. The Rebbe then asked about an international distributor. When I said that we hadn’t yet found one, he emphasized, “You must be sure to have a distributor outside of Israel as well.” It was clear how much the Rebbe liked the books. “They should be spread as widely as possible,” he once remarked.
After the Rebbe stopped holding private audiences, he began giving out dollars for charity on Sunday. From then on, whenever I visited the Rebbe, I would bring a copy of each book that had been released since my last visit, and would present them to the Rebbe. The secretaries were used to taking these kinds of gifts and putting them to the side, but the Rebbe would always have them count the books, and then gave me a dollar for each one.
The entire series now contains over 100 volumes. Originally, they came out individually, but then I bound every four stories in a hardcover book. They have now been translated into Yiddish, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, and even a few in Georgian. Recently, we published some of them in a laminated format, and we are currently working on a new edition of the books for smaller children, in a larger size, with the words put into rhyme.
In publishing the “Machanayim Library” we’ve seen wonderful blessings. Many others have published children’s books, but none have managed to last as long as Machanayim, while continuing to progress and to flourish as we have. This series gives children a true, pure education, with the guidance and blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Gershon Burkis, a former member of the Lod Religious Council, founded the “Machanayim Library,” a series of Jewish children’s books featuring authentic stories. He was interviewed in June 2015.