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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Reviews

Jews and Shoes, edited by Edna Nahshon. Oxford: Berg Press, 2008.  226 pp.  $34.95.


This eclectic volume lives up to its wonderful alliterative and rhyming title. At first blush, the topic may seem utterly obscure, if not downright bizarre. Some postmodern silliness! But I feel confident stating that all readers will find something insightful and relevant in this collection which—dare I say it, treads on new intellectual territory.

Edna Nahshon’s opening chapter, “Jews and Shoes,” broadly surveys shoes throughout Jewish history. She discusses shoes as physical objects and also as metaphors; shoes worn, and shoes removed, hurled, and destroyed; erotic shoes and artistic shoes; the shoemaker as a Jewish profession; and shoes that stand as mute memorials to the Holocaust. Neither the Introduction nor any essay in the volume establishes a conceptual framework, or engages seriously contemporary theoretical debates. Hence, the book is best read as a series of case-studies that, as in all good work in cultural studies, illuminate significant meanings in what otherwise passes unnoticed.

In “The Biblical Shoe: Eschewing Footwear: The Call of Moses as Biblical Archetype,” Ora Horn Prouser discuss Ancient Israelite shoes and barefootedness—alas, only in five disappointing pages that cite less than a dozen scholarly references. She straightforwardly traces the paradigmatic instance of biblical shoelessness to the divine command to Moses before the burning bush.

Catherine Hezser’s chapter, “The Halitzah Shoe: Between Female Subjugation and Symbolic Emasculation,” focuses on a long-vexing biblical gesture that follows upon a man’s refusal to fulfill his leviratic duty and inseminate a deceased brother’s childless widow. Thus snubbed, the widow removes the brother-in-law’s shoe, expectorates in his face, and utters a brief statement. Hezser surveys select interpretations of this gesture, but oddly offers no analysis herself. She then reviews rabbinic thought on the rite and its performance in medieval and modern society, but not the continuation of the ceremony in some Orthodox communities today.

Rivka Parchiack’s fascinating, creative essay on “The Tombstone Shoe: Shoe-Shaped Tombstones in Jewish Cemeteries in the Ukraine” probes a funerary enigma that will surely be as new to many readers as it was for me. These shoe-shaped tombstones first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, and then faded in the 1980s. Parchiack was unable to locate any substantive documents on this unique practice. She thus offers the intriguing and plausible thesis that these tombstones materialized a moment of heightened messianism by evoking Exodus 12:11, when the Israelites were ordered to pull on their shoes in readiness for redemption. Alternatively, Parchiack anchors the funerary sculptures to the Hasidic-Kabbalistic notion that metaphoric shoes protect the deceased from demons and pollution.

Orna Ben-Meir’s essay on “The Israeli Shoe: Biblical Sandals and Native Israeli Identity” is equally terrific. As a named category, “biblical sandals” emerged at the time of World War II. But Ben-Meir traces the history of this “invented tradition” to early Zionist ideology, specifically, the wider aims of the Second Aliyah. Sandals allowed Jews symbolically and physically to walk upon and thus to reclaim the land. The sandals, too, conjured proletarian labor and agrarian asceticism, and so allowed rural Jews to dress against the urban bourgeoisie. Ben-Meir also contextualizes the Israeli sandal in early twentieth-century Zionist dress codes and gender.

In “The Shtetl Shoe: How to Make a Shoe,” an elderly father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, reminisces to his daughter, the well-known scholar Barbara Kirshenblat-Gimblett, about shoes and shoemaking—really, about a bitter-sweet family history—before the Shoah. Robert A. Rothstein’s essay, “The Folkloristic Shoe: Shoes and Shoemakers in Yiddish Language and Folklore,” focuses on Yiddish vocabulary, innuendo, proverbs, and metaphors.

Jeffrey Feldman’s compelling essay, “The Holocaust Shoe: Untying Memory: Shoes as Holocaust Memorial Experience,” elegantly explores the different roles of shoes in Holocaust memorials and discourses—as evidence, commemoration, and metaphor—and their emotional evocations and entanglements. Feldman deftly weaves emotional resonance with scholarly analysis. I was pleased to see that Feldman addressed a wider body of scholarship, including the Eyes Wide Open memorial of the Iraqi War, which now exhibits over 3000 pairs of shoes.

Shelly Zer-Zion’s insightful essay, “The Wanderer’s Shoe: The Cobbler’s Penalty: The Wandering Jew in Search of Salvation,” focuses on modern meanings of this old tale. Most interestingly, she details the appropriation of this iconic image into Jewish and Zionist thought. The Wandering Jew becomes a heroic figure, journeying through the Diaspora as a ghost of former Jewish splendor, resolutely treading towards the Promised Land. In various ways, writes Zer-Zion, early Zionist thought cobbled together several metaphoric “shoes” that allowed the Wandering Jew finally to walk into a legitimate history and place.

Ayala Raz writes perceptively on “The Equalizing Shoe: Shoes as Symbols of Equality in the Jewish Society in Palestine During the First Half of the Twentieth Century.” Arrivals in Palestine during the Second Aliyah shunned bourgeois, sartorial elegance and donned instead tattered garb to convey a socialist, egalitarian ethos. The “New Jew” idealized barefootedness, ragged shoes, and protruding toes. Israelis took up sandals en masse after statehood during the economic austerity regime. So-called “biblical sandals” betokened authentic Israeli personhood—a sense of identity increasingly consigned to nostalgia through the rise of consumerism and fashion designer outfits.

The final four essays discuss shoes in Jewish art. Andrew Ingall writes on psychoanalytic and Jewish themes in “The Fetishist’s Shoes: ‘Poems of Pedal Atrocity’: Sexuality, Ethnicity, and Religion in the Art of Bruno Schultz,” a Polish writer in the first-half of the twentieth century who also etched a corpus of “fetishistic masochism” involving grotesque men gaping at women’s feet and shoes. In “The Artist’s Shoe: Digging into the Jewish Roots of Shoe-Field,” Sonya Rapoport reflects on her own ongoing media artwork involving shoes. Dorit Yerushalmi’s contribution, “The Theatrical Shoe: The Utterance of Shoemaking: Cobblers on the Israeli Stage,” interprets various influences that shaped a canonical Israeli comedy, King Solomon and Shalmai the Cobbler, which premiered in Tel Aviv in 1943. And the final essay, Jeanette R. Malkin’s “The Cinematic Shoe: Ernst Lubitsch’s East European ‘Touch’ in Pinkus’s Shoe Palace,” probes a 1916 film, Schuhpalast Pinkus, for hints of Jewish life in Berlin. There is, sadly, no concluding essay—nothing to tie together the individual contributions.

I found the essays engaging and, at times, absolutely fascinating. That said, I offer three related critical remarks. First, many of the chapters are simply too brief, and so do not allow for adequate contextualization and embedding. I wished the authors had pushed themselves a bit more. For example, no essay in the volume really discussed the scholarship on fashion and clothing. Second, the essays are too particularistic, too unwilling to discern connections to wider issues and contexts. Last, the book is frankly too Jewish. The essays do not engage broader bodies of scholarship on, say, shoes in other traditions. I hanker for greater cross-ethnic, cross-religious, and cross-cultural dialogue. Perhaps this comment belies my anthropological outlook. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that a global framework, however you wish to define it, so often highlights the local. Still, I applaud the volume, especially its creativity and new insights, as a lively contribution to Jewish studies. Try it on for size. I did, and it was a wonderful, delightful stroll.

Eric K. Silverman

Wheelock College, and Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University