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Jews and Shoes

Treading the path of the holy, with feet solidly on the ground

Howard Jacobson
March 25, 2020
Lucy Jones
Lucy Jones
Lucy Jones
Lucy Jones

Jews and shoes. I remember a cheder teacher saying that from the day they first crossed the desert in sandals no people have had as many rules about the wearing of shoes as Jews. Now we take ’em off, now we say a brocher, now we put ’em on. We wondered how we were supposed to remember when to do which. In the main it didn’t matter, he told us, “except in the presence of G-d, blessed be He.” “Which is presumably when we should take them off,” we guessed. “That’s correct, except for when you should leave them on.” “And who decides that?” “Ask a rabbi.” “Ask a rabbi what to do?” “No, ask a rabbi who to ask.”

But we knew about rabbis and shoes from our previous cheder teacher who’d introduced us to Rabbi Yochanan’s famous dictum, “As tefillin, so shoes.” That had made us snigger. We were 14. Our bar mitzvah duties were long behind us. As tefillin, so shoes, meant we’d be going barefoot.

The holiest man I ever met, who also happened to be the most malodorous, wandered from Jewish house to Jewish house in North Manchester preparing boys for their bar mitzvahs. Whether he was considered to be the best in the business or the cheapest was never divulged by our parents. But they sacrificed a great deal to have him tutor us, taking up carpets an hour before his visit, opening the windows, covering all the furniture in newspapers, and disinfecting the entire house after he left.

Other than his smell, and remnants of my bar mitzvah portion, two things about him remain with me. His licking his lips over Esther, wife of Ahasuerus, whom he referred to as a “peach,” and what he wore on his feet. Not shoes—these were not and never had been shoes—but what we used to call plimsolls, once white now black and so worn they had to be held together with string. They were stuffed with cardboard where the soles had worn away and something stuck out of the holes at the front which I couldn’t bring myself to believe were his toes. But if they weren’t his toes, what were they?

In answer to my question, was it necessary to look so disgusting to prove your piety, my parents told me to show some respect; reminded me that his was a peripatetic calling and that anyone would go through shoes who traveled the miles he did; and said a love of God trumped a love of appearance. A dichotomy I told them I found false; what was the argument against loving God and caring how you looked?

Today Manchester is a Chabadnik town. You see more black hats there than you once saw factory chimneys. But at the time of which I speak there were only two streets of frummers. A bracing, secular breeze blew in off the Pennines, cooling any of the religious ardor our grandparents had brought over with them from Minsk. But pre-Lubavitcher Orthodoxy could still be observed in shul, where old men nodded on the benches and called “Shush!” in their sleep. And while their footwear wasn’t the egregious sin against creation my bar mitzvah teacher’s was, their shoes still conformed to religious type. As though on principle, the worshipful walked unpolished and down-at-heel.

My view of what we owed to God was that he would have been a shoe man himself. Our shoes symbolized our wordliness, which is to say our reverence for the world that God gave six whole days of His life to make. Without wanting to sound like Tevye the dairyman, I hold it as an article of faith that an ill-shod man disrespects himself and, by implication, his Maker. This might be an aesthetic rather than a Halachic consideration, but there’s still religion in it. We cannot adequately admire the wonder of creation if we don’t care how we look in it. And there’s morality in it too. A concern for beauty entails a sense of what’s befitting. Call this sense of what’s befitting menschlikeit.

Had I been courageous, this is what I’d have said to the Orthodox men who shushed me when I went to shul. “Reverend sirs, the word mensch does not merely denote gender. A mensch is a person of integrity. He stands for something. The shoes we stand up in matter because the idea of standing itself matters. It is associated with honor, self-assurance and uprightness. The school I go to, as you know, is called Stand Grammar after the parish of Stand in Whitefield. Our school motto—Sto Ut Serviam (I stand in order that I may serve) is at once a pun and a paradox. We serve the better not by kneeling or prostrating ourselves but by standing our ground. We stand on our own two feet to show determination and reverence. And he who will stand determinedly and reverently needs appropriate shoes to stand in.”

“Shush!” they would have said, assuming they’d stayed awake.

Among the subtle differences that marked out Jewish boys and gentile boys at this time, shoes were probably the most significant, especially at the weekend when the gentiles couldn’t wait to get into the 1950s equivalent of leisurewear which meant canvas pumps, cork deck shoes, plastic flip-flops, anything they could run, climb, swing, or even swim in. With no traditions of time off to draw on—even on a Sunday I never saw my father dressed for anything but work, his only concession to casual being the occasional untied lace—we slipped out of our school uniforms into outfits if anything still more formal, changing our nondescript funereal weekday shoes for some version or other of those classic Oxfords worn by accountants, barristers, and oncologists. When girls entered the picture our shoes became, if anything, more traditional still. We would no more have dated a girl who didn’t like to see a boy in fatherly brogues than we would have dated a girl who did not herself wear the black suede slingbacks with four-inch heels our aunties favored.

Some time in the late ’50s a sensational event changed the whole complexion of the shoe debate. A rivalry between two local grocery shops turned into open warfare when the proprietor of one hired a hitman of Eastern European descent to firebomb the other. In my novel The Mighty Walzer I fictionalized this feud, calling the hitman Benny the Pole. People have speculated that the real hitman was Russian Dave, a well-known Manchester personality of the period. But I do not divulge my sources. This much, however, is true: Both Benny the Pole and Russian Dave were renowned for the chic expensiveness of their shoes. Come the night of the explosion—what sounded like an atom bomb woke the whole of Jewish Manchester from its sleep and flames higher than those that consumed Gomorrah illuminated the night sky—either Benny the Pole or Russian Dave messed up the getaway, leaving behind a suede moccasin, singed by the fire but still recognizable as having been designed in Milan, hand-stitched in Naples, and worn by no one else in the North of England. An arrest followed almost immediately, then a jail sentence, then a quandary to those of us for whom shoes were of paramount importance.

My view of what we owed to God was that He would have been a shoe man himself.

In line with the easing of postwar austerity and the slackening of popular mores, shoes had been changing for the last couple of years, as had the shops that sold them. If we wanted winkle-pickers or brothel creepers or platform discos, or even two-tone wingtip Oxfords, we no longer looked for them in Clark’s or Bata but scoured the new design boutiques that were opening on the high street. Most of the new styles were too outlandish for me and my friends, but suede moccasins designed in Milan and hand-stitched in Naples seemed to offer an irresistible compromise between our native conservatism and fashionable flagrancy. One or two of us had even bought a pair before the bombing of Leslie Cohen’s corner grocery. The question asked of us now was whether adopting the style of a member of the Manchester mafia currently serving time in Strangeways Jail could really be considered an advance—from the point of view of menschlichkeit—on going about like a melamed in plimsolls tied with old string.

I put the shoe meshugas to sleep for a few years and concentrated on reading. What I wore on my feet I don’t even remember. But then suddenly, as though beckoned by a burning bush, I was drawn to a shop window in Cambridge in which was displayed the most elegant pair of Chelsea boots I’d ever seen, wonderfully shaped at the ankles, as though designed to fit a Hussar, and made out of buffalo skin. I blew a whole term’s student grant on them, gave up reading, and spent my days polishing them with a combination of spit, Vaseline, and beeswax. This was a mystery to my gentile friends but the Jews I knew understood. We are a devotional people. The specific pretext or occasion is irrelevant—sometimes we just have to do obeisance.

Long after those boots wore out, the idea of them remained. I had been vindicated. I had managed to be elegant and, by my own lights, a man of faith. But now the time of youth has fled, gray hairs are on my head, and on my feet I’m wearing trainers. You could say I’ve let myself go. At least, though, I know how horrible trainers are and take elaborate precautions never to be seen wearing them. The last time I thought I recognized a friend approaching—I was on the beach at Brighton—I walked out to sea in them.

No doctor has ordered me to wear trainers. I won’t become an invalid if I don’t. But I walk better with them on. If anything, they do the walking for me. They put a spring in my step before I take a step. They power me like the winged sandals Hermes wore. They are light, strong, fast, made of noxious substances that will outlive the planet and are hideous to behold. If I were going from house to house preparing Jewish boys for their bar mitzvahs, these trainers are what I would wear. And their parents would be right to spread newspapers on the carpets in advance of my visit.

My shame does not end there. Once were Jews in shoes. Now, to all intents and purposes, are Yoks in socks. For to wear trainers as they are designed to be worn I have to purchase “low-cut no-show trainer-liners” from shops frequented by gangs of little girls. Old men rage against the fading of the light, the cruelty of daughters, the world’s indifference, the losing of their wits. More mortifying than any of these is wearing pre-adolescent, Polyanna, Little Women ankle socks.

In my own eyes I am a triple sinner. against beauty, against individuality, and against God. Let the Orthodox accoutre themselves in the presence of their Maker as they choose, I have my own idea of what a religious man should wear on his feet. The God who made the world in six days and saw that it was good never envisaged trainers.

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.