Atonement is best practiced in canvas, or so says Jewish tradition. In the interest of abandoning personal comfort in favor of reflection, common Yom Kippur observance bans leather shoes, and early historical records suggest the custom was once to abandon footwear altogether. The lore surrounding the practice varies: Some rabbis explain it by applying Kabbalistic logic; the shoe protects the foot just as the body protects the soul. On a day devoted to all-consuming spirituality, the soul needs no such protection, and by extension, the foot can go unshod. Others claim that on a day so holy, observant Jews, like angels, transcend the need for shoes. The most pragmatic practice”shunning leather in favor of canvas”follows a less mystical principle. By avoiding leather, people are intentionally creating vulnerability and discomfort, honoring the Yom Kippur custom of self-denial.
According to Judaic scholar Edna Nahshon, though, the symbolic value of shoes is a year-round affair. Her new book, a collection of essays aptly titled Jews and Shoes, aims to trace the role of footwear in the evolution of Jewish identity. Nahshon follows shoes across the sartorial map. Examining the Bible’s treatment of Moses’ sandals, Ora Horn Prouser, a scholar at the Academy for Jewish Religion, discovers a window into her relationship with God. Fashion historian Ayala Raz finds Zionist ideology inscribed upon popular Israeli footwear. The Jewish Museum’s Andrew Ingall puts a Jewish spin on Primo Levi’s fetishistic preference for women in heels, and artist Mayer Kirshenblatt offers a glimpse into life in pre-war Poland as he recalls his years as a shoemaker. If the essays in Nahshon’s collection figure the shoe as an extension of the Jewish body, Jews and Shoes offers a “cultural anatomy” of footwear.
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Illustration by Vanessa Davis.