«Israelis recognize each other by their sandals.»
Four questions for Tamar El’Or
This week marks the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel 1897. The Congress inspired a political and cultural renaissance, disseminating, among others, the Star of David as a secular Jewish symbol. But if the Magen David was the most famous symbol to come out of Zionism, it was not the only one. Many other Zionist material and immaterial legacies inspired Israeli culture. Naomi Lubrich asked Tamar El’Or (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) about her research on the sandal as an expression of a distinctively Israeli self-fashioning.
Naomi Lubrich: In your article «The Soul of the Sandal,» you write that a sandal from Biblical times discovered in Israel around 1960 informed a style that would become quintessentially Israeli. What are you referring to?
Tamar El’Or: I am referring to a sandal found in the cave of letters in Nahal Hever by Yigael Yadin. Since it was found next to a pouch with personal documents of a woman named Babatha, the sandal is ascribed to her. You will find an image on the site of the Israeli Antiquities Authority’s National Treasures.
It has one long vertical leather strap which runs along the foot from between the toes, wraps the ankle, and ties itself back in front. These vertical-shaped sandals were very common in the Mesopotamian region from India and Persia down to Egypt. Along with the horizontal sandal (the Biblical sandal), they provide two basic forms which were models for creating what can be termed a «local Israeli sandal.»
NL: You write that some sandals recreated Biblical footwear, while others were functional. Sandals were the preferred footwear in kibbutzim. Which form was typical for kibbutzniks – and why?
TE: Sandals were made in the kibbutzim by local shoemakers, most of whom came from central Europe. They were less familiar with the Mesopotamic style and recreated the horizontal two-strap sandal, funnily known in Germany as «Jesus sandal.» This style became very popular among locals who wanted to look like kibbutzniks. «Jesus sandal» was rebranded in Tel Aviv and turned into a «Biblical sandal.»
NL: A major Israeli sandal-maker in 1944 opened a company by the name of «Nimrod.» Who was Nimrod, and what connotations did the name carry in the 1940s?
TE: Nimrod is a hero and hunter in Genesis (10:8–13). He is the Biblical counterpart of a mythological figure from ancient Mesopotamia and has a rich history starting in the second millennium B.C.E. The Bible describes him as a heroic hunter and a king, but ancient hermeneutic Jewish texts are critical of his violence and rebellion. His name in Hebrew means: «let us rebel». A Midrash presents him as the ultimate pagan vis-à-vis Abraham (Bereshit Raba; 38:13). Traditional and orthodox Jews did not and do not name their sons Nimrod, but beginning in the 1940s, it became a fashionable first name among nonorthodox Israelis, who searched for Canaanite connections. There is a lot more to say about Nimrod. The artist Y. Danziger created a statue of Nimrod which was hugely influential, as I explained in my article.
NL: Has the sandal as an expression of Zionist self-fashioning had its day? Or does it still carry meaning in Israel different from its meaning elsewhere?
TE: It is still a local object with codes easily read by Israelis. While traveling abroad, Israelis recognize each other by their sandals. The original look is still being reproduced, either in its original form or with new and different materials and colors. Take a look at these handmade kibbutz sandals, or at these ones, machine-made in Hebron by Palestinians. For a contemporary look, check out Shani Lax’s shoes. For an «outdoor look» see Source, and for an urban look, see Naot.
NL: Tamar El’Or, thank you very much for your insight! I’ll take a good look the next time I see an Israeli wearing sandals.
verfasst am 29.08.2022
© Illustration: Marva Gradwohl