“Fashion is a social force that functions effectively not only as an economic engine but as a semiotic system that transmits social and political messages by means of nonverbal language rich in signs, symbols and iconography.” - Ayala Raz, The Equalizing Shoe
For most people, shoes are not the first thing that come to mind when thinking about Jewish cultural heritage. However, after taking a look at Jews and Shoes, a compilation of fourteen academic essays on the apparently unique relationship Jewish people have had with shoes, one must rethink the assumption that shoes are of no particular importance.
Given the Jewish people’s legacy as eternal wanderers, it makes sense that footwear may have taken on a deeper meaning for them. However, this book is far more detailed than that. Split into four thematic sections, it covers a variety of cultural instances where shoes play an important role: religion and the Bible, memorials, political ideology and the arts. To my mind, the strongest essay in this book is a fascinating analysis that questions the commodity fetishism of the piles of shoes found at Holocaust memorials. Having never been to a Holocaust memorial myself, I was surprised to learn of their emphasis on displaying the personal items of those interred and killed at the camps to show the magnitude of the numbers of possessions that were methodically sorted into piles by Nazis intending to redistribute them later. The author, Jeffrey Feldman, does an absolutely superb job of relating memorial attendees’ very visceral reactions to these piles upon piles of shoes of all sorts and the sights, smells, and textures that come from all that rotting leather. The questions posed are not only thought provoking in terms of the legacy of the Holocaust, but about how artefacts and museum objects are structured and displayed in order to evoke an emotional response.
Unfortunately, not all of the essays are as well done. I found the first section, dealing with religious and biblical references to shoes, to be weak and tedious. In this section more than any other, I was struck by the dullness of the academic writing style and found that these essays in particular suffer from the Cultural Studies vice of overanalyzing commonplace objects trying to extract more meaning than there is. Sometimes a shoe is just a shoe. At times it also felt as if I needed a working knowledge of the Bible in order to really understand the points that a few of these authors were trying to make. Maybe I’m wrong, and that reference to shoes in Exodus is more significant than I think, however, not having sat down with a copy of the Bible before tearing into this I was left feeling a bit drowned in biblical minutiae.
That said, although it has its weaknesses, I do recommend this book. Even though it only deals with one culture, as a non-Jewish reader I was fascinated by the importance of shoes in human history, and, as one author puts it, “the communicative role of footwear.” Plus, since this is formatted as a collection of essays, you can dive in and out as you please. At the very least the wonderfully rhyming title will surely make you smile.
Jews and Shoes edited by Edna Nahshon (Berg, 2008).
Reviewed by Anisha Seth.