For some of us, the real deprivation presented by Yom Kippur is not food, or even caffeine. It’s shoes—leather ones, to be precise. Rabbinic tradition, naturally, offers an array of explanations for why—leather shoes are considered a luxury; leather footwear was forbidden in the Temple; the need for shoes is a reminder of the sins of Eden. The real question, in practice, is what to wear instead.
For decades, canvas sneakers have been the favored solution, though rubber Crocs are gaining in popularity. But now, Jews have a whole new set of options: shoes made for vegans. Earlier this week, the Conservative movement launched a campaign to get Jews to buy hemp and recycled-rubber slip-ons from Toms, a California company founded by Blake Mycoskie, a Southern Methodist University dropout (and former Amazing Race contestant) who gives away a pair of shoes in the Third World for every pair he sells. “People can make not wearing leather shoes into a mitzvah,” explained Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. (She said she wasn’t sure how many congregants follow the custom, but acknowledged that the Toms initiative, dubbed “Heart and Sole,” is a nice way to remind people of it, too.)
But who needs slippers when Stella McCartney—the queen of vegan runway couture—is selling $1,200 faux-suede platform boots? Plus, last year, Natalie Portman launched her own line of fashionable vegan shoes at Te Casan, a high-end shoe boutique in New York’s SoHo, and pledged to donate five percent of her profits to charity—not quite as generous as the Toms offer, but tzedakah nonetheless.
Moo Shoes, an all-vegan shoe store on New York’s Lower East Side, sells an array of faux-leather high heels and flats from makers like Olsen Haus—whose designer, Elizabeth Olsen, has worked for Calvin Klein and Nine West—and NoVacas, which guarantees that even the glue holding its synthetic shoes together is vegan. The trouble, store owner Sara Kubersky explained, is that observant Jews tend to want their leather-free Yom Kippur shoes to look, well, leather-free. “We’ve had people browse in the store and say they could wear the shoes on the High Holidays,” said Kuberski, who said she remembered a regular parade of slip-ons at her childhood shul. “But I’ve always felt that people who aren’t going to wear leather will wear canvas—you don’t want people thinking you’re wearing leather.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of the Modern Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (which counts the newly converted, and fashion-conscious, Ivanka Trump among its members) agrees. The problem, he explained, was that it violates a principle known as mar’it ayin—the imperative not to mislead others into thinking it’s acceptable to break Jewish law. “It’s not a good idea to wear shoes that look like leather on Yom Kippur,” he said.