The Khugistic Sandal

Jenny Diski

  • BuyJews and Shoes edited by Edna Nahshon
    Berg, 226 pp, £17.99, August 2008, ISBN 978 1 84788 050 5

Great shoemakers of our day: Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin. None of them, I think, very Jewish. And if there had been any great pre or postwar Jewish shoe mavins they would certainly have been pointed out to me by my parents, who identified any Jewish achiever in any sphere as one of the family: Alma Cogan, Einstein, Marx, boxing promoter Jack Solomons (the Sultan of Sock), it didn’t matter what they were known for, everyone counted. Even, like the Kray Twins, a little bit Jewish and murderers would make them ours and make us proud – but there was never a mention of shoe designers. So, I supposed that a book called Jews and Shoes was going to be either a bumper book of Jewish jokes about schlepping and cobbling, or a severe cultural studies analysis of the nature and symbolic value of footwear in Jewish society through the ages. Aside from a mention of how Ferragamo got his start by popularising the strappy shoe for Hollywood lovelies after being commissioned by Cecil B. DeMille to make 12,000 sandals for the original 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, there is nothing to be found on high-end modern footwear. Jews and Shoes turns out indeed to be largely about schlepping and cobbling, but is entirely devoid of jokes. This is academic cultural studies at its most anxious, wanting to make much of little but worrying about not being taken seriously. Making much of little is, of course, a vital task and one at which jokes excel (though they’re just as good at making little of much). But I can’t think of any Jewish shoe jokes, so perhaps the contributors to this collection of essays had their hands tied.

Cultural studies usually makes much of little by ascribing large meanings to the mundane. Shoes are hardly lacking cultural and symbolic meaning. We are reminded several times of the Freudian shoe, phallic or vaginal receptacle for the phallic or vaginal foot – whichever suits. Meanings must illuminate use, so a Freudianish explanation is offered for the halitzah ceremony, in which a Jewish widow whose brother-in-law refuses to marry her in the levirate tradition spits in his face and rips off one of his shoes before going her own way. This public humiliation – emasculation, Catherine Hezser suggests in her essay – gave the woman her independence. A strike for feminism? Not really, since the widow became independent in an ancient world where neither her father nor her dead husband’s family any longer had to take care of her. More like a mild public admonition for having rendered the woman destitute. I imagine it was a humiliation a brother-in-law not willing to father a child who would inherit his brother’s portion was able to bear. (Look it up.) He didn’t even have to use his own shoes – the rabbinic court supplied them. Moreover, Hezser points out, the putting on and taking off of another’s shoes is equally a sign of subservience, and the spitting in the face might be translated as spitting on the ground – as plausibly a gesture of frustration as of glorious contempt. Freud sneaks back in a passage in the Babylonian Talmud which allows women to ‘reject suitors from a superior family background by saying: “I do not want a shoe too large for my foot.”’ Conversely, in a Midrash explaining why Pharoah contracted lupus after he tried to bed Abram’s wife Sara, ‘R. Berekiah said: Because he dared to approach the shoe of that lady.’ One way or another, as Hezser says, the ‘later rabbis were well aware of the symbolism of the foot and shoe’. Shoes, make of them what you will.

With or without a Freudian tinge, shoes relate to the sacred and profane. God’s first instruction to Moses as he stands astonished in front of the burning bush is that he should take his shoes off ‘for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’. But Ora Horn Prouser says that the command ‘may simply appear to be about holiness’ when, actually, it defines the nature of the relationship between God and the Israelites. Captives are kept barefoot, and David fled barefooted from his son Absalom. Subjugation and unreadiness, therefore, are signified, and we’re reminded, perhaps, of the prelapsarian honeymoon when Adam and Eve were butt naked in the garden and God didn’t have the bother of providing them with clothes. Genesis 3.21 doesn’t actually say that they got a pair of shoes each, but condemned as they were to a lifetime of wandering, to say nothing of the serpent snapping at their heels, surely even the most petulant God would have shod them. Rendering Moses shoeless is explained as another sort of legal ceremony, this one formulating the contract between Yahweh and the Israelites. I’m not sure that relating it (or the Burning Bush episode) to earlier and later parts of the Bible does much more to convey the relations of God and Israel than God’s bald declaration of holy ground and the violating human shoe. Still, the Lord kept his part of the bargain not only by leading them out of Egypt, but by looking after their feet: ‘And I have led you forty years in the wilderness: your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon foot.’ Even Lobbs of St James, whose handmade shoes start at £1758 a pair, can only guarantee that they ‘are made to last as long as possible in both the construction and the leather used’.

The linking of Jews and shoes makes sense, I suppose, beyond the satisfactory rhyme, for a people on the move since well before Moses and long before medieval Christianity invented the Wandering Jew. Abraham, the father of them all, was told to ‘get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.’ After which there was no end of traipsing, fleeing and marching into battle. Plays havoc with the feet, and certainly a decent pair of shoes would help. The Jew/shoe linkage is strengthened in a pamphlet of 1602, cited by Shelly Zer-Zion in her chapter, which describes the Jew named Ahasverus who had owned a cobbler’s shop on the Via Dolorosa, but refused Christ assistance as he passed by. Whereupon Christ ‘looked hard at him, and said: “I shall stand here and rest, but you shall wander forth and be everlastingly restless.”’

However, there is more to shoes than meets the eye. Zer-Zion references the cultural historian Sander Gilman. Inside every shoe is a foot, and Jewish feet, according to Gilman’s chapter on the Jewish foot in his book The Jew’s Body, were as emblematic in anti-semitic literature as their noses. The Wandering Jew had a particular gait that came partly from his naturally twisted body, but also from endemic flat-footedness. Gilman suggests that the origin of the Jewish crooked foot is the idea of the secret difference of the Jews – the Devil’s cloven foot concealed by shoes. A civilised covering for the degenerate reality. It’s a myth that’s lasted well since its medieval beginnings. When I was around eight, a friend of mine came home from school, shrieking in terror, rushed past her mother and shut herself in her room for hours, sobbing. It turned out the nuns at her convent school (who knows why a convent school) had told her class that Jews had cloven hooves inside their shoes. The Jewish girl had been advised to sneak a look at her mother’s feet while she slept and see that it was so. I don’t think it was suggested that she herself had cloven hooves, so I imagine they’re something that grows on you, unless you have the good sense to convert while there’s still a chance. Her mother had to force my friend to watch her take off her shoes and reveal a pair of common or garden feet no different from the Catholic variety.

Flat-footedness became a 19th-century medical fact about Jews: a condition that prevented them from entering the army and therefore from being regarded as a full citizens in the highly militarised Austrian monarchy. Jewish doctors, not wanting to be seen as lesser scientists, accepted the Jewish flat foot as gospel, but suggested it was caused by ‘the misuse’ of the foot. It was the long urban existence of the Jews that had ruined their feet, not the proposed ‘generally looser structure of the Jew’s musculature’. Civilisation, not race, had caused the defect. The argument required the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a theory that trembles with the possibility of putting to rest the nature/nurture debate, but sadly came to nothing. Gilman makes a connection between flat-footedness and Charcot’s diagnosis of intermittent claudication – a chronic recurrence of pain and tension in the lower leg and finally paralysis. This became a Jewish pathology: in a 1901 paper, Higier suggested it was a sign of structural weakness and of hysteria. In 1905, Freud, a pupil of Charcot, wrote up his analysis of Dora, who fitted the bill perfectly: Jewish, hysterical and suffering from paralysis. Then intermittent claudication was found to relate statistically to circulation problems caused especially by heavy smoking, and this enabled the uneasily assimilated German Jewish scientists to shift the diagnosis to the disreputable and impoverished Eastern Jews, who smoked like chimneys.

Eventually, the Zionists appropriated the idea of the Wandering Jew, reconstituting it as loss and migration. The Wandering Jew became a poster boy for the Zionist notion of an Israeli homeland, which could only be achieved by a New Jew. The Zionists took up the story about the physically weak body of the Jew, but they had a solution. Max Nordau, co-founder of the World Zionist Organisation with Theodor Herzl, had also studied with Charcot in his youth. Zer-Zion says: ‘He accepted the assumption that Jews suffered from orthopedic and psychological problems that prevented them from becoming useful citizens. Thus he developed the concept of Muscle Jewry and advocated the establishment of sports clubs in Jewish society. It was not the right shoes that would redeem the Wandering Jew but rather well-shaped and highly trained legs and feet.’ The Wandering Jew was given a Zionist direction.

The Holocaust Shoe is an inevitable chapter. The mounds of leftover shoes at every Holocaust museum and memorial are considered by Jeffrey Feldman. Are they, he asks, part of the commodity fetishism of the memorial industry: Graceland, heritage tourism, the concentration camp trail – the equivalent of the relics of the Catholic martyrs? The symbolic value of these shoes is evident: scattered in piles, unpaired, disordered, no longer shoes for individuals (themselves industrially disposed of), purposeless. You are supposed to think of the feet that were once inside the shoes. You stand in front of them, but, Feldman says, it is usually a passive encounter. He considers the fact of the piles, and their condition. Their rotting leather, the smell of decay and mould; the effect of the time that has passed since they were taken from their owners. It is the difference between the immediate and the historical, and the Holocaust itself slips into relicdom as it slips into the historical past: a sanitised exhibit for new generations who didn’t live through the event or its discovery. The eyes, Feldman says, are not enough. The observer needs to smell and touch in order to get closer to the reality.

The nationalistic and originally socialist project of Zionism in Palestine fetishised the rugged, minimal, battered and levelling shoe. Songs were sung about them:

Hey, Hey, Hey, shoes;
Shoes without soles;
And the rocks torch the feet;
Torch, torch, torch.
Never mind, never mind, never mind;
The chalutz will build, build, build Jerusalem!
Build, build, build, build, build.

And leaders are judged by the condition of their shoes: ‘It’s hard to describe the tremendous impression made on me by Richard’s bare toes, as they poked out from his torn shoes . . . Is there anything nobler than torn shoes on the feet of a leader? That is the ultimate symbol of the pioneer.’

Shoes are literally fetishised by the extraordinary Bruno Schulz in his pictures of crouching, self-abasing men – self-portraits often – excruciated with desire at the feet and elegant shoes of fancy women holding whips or with their noses in the air. Unworldly Yeshiva boys and alarmed young Hassids encounter pairs of haughty women (shikses, surely) in shiny high heels, and gaze on them longingly or avert their gaze unconvincingly. ‘The shoe provides a locus for Schulz’s fascination with traditional Jud-aism and fetishistic masochism,’ Andrew Ingall writes. Schulz, he suggests, transgresses ‘the second commandment prohibitions, both in terms of creating graven images and worshipping the false idols of women, shoes and feet’. It’s an intriguing idea, but it would need a longer article, and perhaps one that took in Schulz’s writing, to give it substance. Contemporary art gets a look in too, though it seems shoe-horned. A chapter on installation art, using shoes and maths, created and written about by Sonya Rapoport, barely seems to make the effort to connect Jews and shoes beyond the fact of the artist’s own Jewishness, the use of Yiddish in subheadings (‘Jew-Psyche Reading: In Mitn Derinen/An Egoistic Sense of Self Shows Itself’) and her final apparently clinching but baffling remark: ‘Assigning a numeric value to quantitative feelings about shoes engages a spectrum of social dimensions such as being Jewish.’ Another article on ‘The Tombstone Shoe’ offers the suggestion, without finding much in the way of evidence, that the shoe-shaped tombstones found around Western Ukraine and Kiev in 19th-century Jewish cemeteries were indications of a millennial expectation, the Tarnik movement’s belief in the coming of the Messiah in 1840. The shoe-shaped tombstones were for properly shod Jewish souls to make their way to Zion. Or, says Rivka Parciack, they might have been Cabbalistic symbols protecting the dead against demons. Either way, ‘there are no definite or conclusive answers.’

Cultural studies leaves no stone unturned. There is an analysis of Ernst Lubitsch’s first full-length film, made in 1916, long before he got to Hollywood, called Schuhpalast Pinkus (‘Pinkus’s Shoe Palace’), which is discussed by Jeanette Malkin in terms of the split between the Berlin Jews and the Ostjuden. Pinkus, played by Berlin Jew Lubitsch, is ‘ambitious, lewd, pushy and smart’. He is hopeless at sport, school and business, but somehow – with the help of a rich woman impressed by his chutzpah – he becomes at last a successful shoe mogul. German Jews protested that the film endorsed the anti-semitism that was already beginning to make them uncomfortable, but Lubitsch claimed it was simply Jewish humour. Malkin suggests that he is playing Pinkus as one of the immigrant Ostjuden who lived (in poverty) in the peripheral vision of Schönhauser Allee, where Lubitsch grew up. Pinkus makes good from despised Eastern Jew to fully respectable German Jewish merchant, and his vehicle is the shoe.

Two essays in this collection that discuss the iconic pioneering Israeli shoe gave me more to think about. The Khugistic Sandal had two horizontal straps and a buckle at the ankle. The sandals were called Khugistic after a commune that was said originally to have produced them, but in the 1930s they were renamed Biblical Sandals. The renaming was symbolic, Orna Ben-Meir says, designed to reiterate the ancestral link between contemporary Jews and the land given by God to Abraham: ‘Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.’ Neither the Lord nor this book has anything very much to say about those who were already on the land. Though it seems inescapable to me, the symbolic Biblical Shoe, on the feet of the ancient Hebrew wanderers and more recently the pioneers and later citizens of the Israeli state, is never described as being symbolically on the necks of the Canaanites or the Palestinians. Actually, there’s barely an indication in these essays of there being anyone on the land, though the various aliyahs by Jewish immigrants and the meaning of what they wore on their feet are described in meticulous detail. The open-toed sandal had the right kind of earthy austerity for the early arrivals, and alluded to ‘the then admired model of the native Bedouin’. No longer admired, the sentence suggests. The people who already inhabited the land are mentioned only twice. According to ‘The Israeli Shoe’ by Orna Ben-Meir, ‘the Zionist project in Palestine was threatened on two sides: the cultural challenge of British colonial rule and the enmity of native Arabs,’ while Ayala Raz, in ‘The Equalising Shoe’, tells us that ‘Jewish urban life in Palestine at the time was difficult, largely due to bloody conflicts between Arabs and the Jewish community, which had reached 450,000 by 1940.’

We get a very partial view of the symbolic power of the Biblical Sandal. The bourgeois life was despised by the Israeli immigrants – Old Europe and things that didn’t matter like decoration and fashion. The loss of the equalising sandal is regretted in modernised Israel. ‘You love yourself in the polished shoes you wear now, and I love you because I remember your crooked sandals,’ a character in S.Y. Agnon’s 1945 novel, The Day before Yesterday, says to a wealthy friend who has forgotten his past. ‘We can see footwear functioning here as a metonym for personhood and values,’ Ayala Raz explains. Limited values, I would say. Perhaps this isn’t the place to expect any acknowledgment of a Palestinian point of view in the construction of Israel. The focus is on shoes rather than the rights and wrongs of the state of Israel. For me, though, as I read these essays, the absent Palestinians had a more powerful presence than the Khugistic Sandal.

In fact, one man talking about what he knows provides the most compelling chapter of the book. Mayer Kirshenblatt’s father was a merchant who supplied cobblers with their raw materials and he himself was apprenticed to a cobbler before he left Poland for Canada in 1934 at the age of 17. In a transcribed interview with his daughter he describes, with diagrams, how shoes were made, as well as the itinerant shoe-polish seller’s black chauffeur, believed by the children to have been polished each day to show the efficacy of the product. His voice is informative, funny and affectionate, as effective a chapter in cultural meanings as any of the others. We even get back to the Freudian shoe when he describes his time as the cobbler’s apprentice. The workshop was also the living-room where the whole family spent their time. Kirshenblatt worked there 12 hours a day. He explains that the cobbler’s wife

was not so much fat as she was big: she had broad shoulders, wide hips and enormous breasts. Of course she was breastfeeding. With her size she could have suckled a platoon. She wore a dress that reached below the knees in the front and just below the buttocks at the back. Since she didn’t wear underwear, every time she bent over you got a full view of the whole landscape. She had vaginal lips the size of cabbage leaves. I had never seen anything like it.

Shoes, make of them what you will.