Jews and Shoes

By Edna Nashon
Berg Publishers, 2008, £17.99

The startling image on the cover of this book is a work by the Israeli artist Nechama Golan. It is a high-heeled sandal made of paper, ink and glue. The shoe is printed with a rabbinic text which explains how a woman is acquired, bringing together a number of ideas discussed in this book. In her introduction Nahshon alludes to the ‘special niche in the Jewish closet of memories’ occupied by shoes and their makers. Her book includes research ranging from commentary on shoes in the Bible, to Jewish art, drama and films featuring shoes, via the cobblers of the shtetl and the figure of the Wandering Jew.

The collection is divided into themed sections. The first of these, entitled ‘Religion and the Bible’, begins with a psychoanalytically inflected discussion of the meanings of shoes and shoelessness in the context of God’s desire for an intimate relationship with human beings. This is followed by a study of Halitzah (the ceremony of removing the shoe from her brother-in-law by the childless widow of his dead brother, releasing him from the obligation of marrying her). In this chapter the shoe aspect, though explored in the context of which kinds of shoes were permitted for the performance of Halitzah, is secondary to a feminist enquiry into the history and meaning of Halitzah and Levirate marriage. The next chapter considers late nineteenth and early twentieth-century shoe-shaped tombstones found in cemeteries in eastern Europe. Even though the primary data (the tombstones) is damaged by acid rain and human forces, and there is no scholarship on them, Rivka Parciack offers two fascinating suggestions to account for these unusually shaped tombstones. The final chapter in this section deals with the wearing of sandals as an expression of ideology in the modern Israeli state, and traces back the forging of the new Jewish identity through the wearing of what became known as Biblical sandals from the 1920s onwards.

The first two chapters of the next section, ‘Memories and Commemoration’, are rooted in early twentieth-century Europe. Nahshon reprints an extract from a memoir describing the different shoe-making professions (making the soles, making the uppers, mending shoes) in the Polish village where the author, born in 1916 and briefly apprenticed to a shoemaker, grew up. This is followed by a collection of Yiddish expressions and proverbs about shoemakers. Accompanying these, and offering its own commentary on this period, is Jeffrey Feldman’s essay which draws on his first encounter with the piles of shoes in the Holocaust Museum in Washington and accounts of the Eichmann trial where shoes were first held up as evidence of the mass murder of children. Feldman questions the meanings of these exhibitions and compares them with the exhibit about the Iraq war made of boots arranged in fields in the formation of tombstones. He is interested in the decay and conservation undergone by the hair and shoes remaining in the death camps and, above all, in visitors’ confrontations with the smell of the decaying leather.

The third section, ‘Ideology and Economics’, contains two chapters. The first traces the history of the Wandering Jew in drama and art, setting out a range of arguments about the place of the Wandering Jew in anti-Semitic discourse in Europe and the adoption of this figure by early Zionist thinkers who rejected the idea that Judaism is built on exile. Zionists are said to have ‘converted’ to the Christian theology of nineteenth-century nationalism, seeking to reinscribe the Jewish people in the pages of history and reconnect them to their land. The chapter is extremely well researched but only tangentially related to the idea of shoes. It is followed by a history of dress, including shoes, in the early history of Jewish settlement in Palestine and later in the new state of Israel.  A different context for some of the material discussed in the ‘Biblical Shoe’ chapter is offered here, suggesting that, despite its title, the earlier chapter might have been better placed in this section.

The final section of the collection, ‘Theatre, Art and Film’, begins with a discussion of sexuality centering on shoes and religion in the work of Bruno Schulz, whose drawings feature androgynous yeshiva boys and high-heeled dominatrixes with their abject admirers. The essay balances description and the contextualisation of Shulz’s work in theories of art history and psychoanalysis. Sonya Rapoport’s chapter describes how her 1970s work Shoe-Field was put together, but the discussion does not place the piece within any theoretical context, and her reason for choosing shoes is never explained. ‘The Theatrical Shoe’ is a textual, theatrical and cultural history of Gronemann’s comedy King Solomon and Shalmai the Cobbler, later translated into a Hebrew musical and first staged in Tel Aviv in 1943. It is a well-researched cultural history of theatre in Palestine and then Israel, but the topic seems to have been slightly wrenched to fit the shoe theme. Finally, in ‘The Cinematic Shoe’ Jeanette Malkin discusses an early film by Ernst Lubitsch. She interrogates the ‘Jewish’ portrayal of the petit bourgeois milieu, concluding that Lubitsch drew on the East European Jews often portrayed in the Jewish theatre. Lubitsch’s portrayal aroused controversy because he was working in a mass medium: he produced a too-public depiction of a reviled section of the Jewish population of Berlin at a time of rising anti-Semitism. The piece includes some discussion of the role of objects in Lubitsch’s films and notes the early product placement evident in the fashion show featuring shoes lent by Berlin emporia.

The book is generously illustrated with photographs and reproductions of paintings and drawings. Each essay is accompanied by footnotes and bibliography, and the index is meticulous. The question I was left with, however, was whether scholars and general readers interested in the many fascinating topics discussed in this book would think of looking here for them.

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