Sandals: The most Israeli of objects

Tamar El Or has embarked on a journey to identify which object is most identified with Israeliness.

YOUNG WOMEN show off their fancy footwear in the 1960s (photo credit: YAKI HALPERIN)
YOUNG WOMEN show off their fancy footwear in the 1960s
(photo credit: YAKI HALPERIN)
‘What does being Israeli mean to you?” we love to ask people. One of the most common answers is: “chutzpah.” But when asked what the most Israeli object is, people usually need to stop and think for a moment before answering. Many will suggest the kova tembel (the multi-paneled dome-shaped cloth hat Israelis wore in the early days of the state), tank-top undershirts, khaki pants or biblical sandals.
Tamar El Or, anthropology professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of the book Sandals – An Ethnography of Israeli Style, and the curator of the exhibition that bears the same name that opened last month at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. El Or has embarked on a journey to identify which object is most identified with Israeliness.
Why did you decide to research sandals?
“I’m an anthropologist, and I’ve spent a good part of my career researching haredi [ultra-Orthodox] and religious women. At some point, though, I decided to change the focus of my work and begin researching objects and material culture, which is less popular among anthropologists. Almost no studies have been done on objects – this is more in line with research carried out by museums – and so I began brainstorming about Israeli objects that are clichés. That’s how I ended up picking sandals.”
The exhibition displays a wide range of sandals made by kibbutzim and workshops in Tel Aviv; sandals that were produced and sewn in factories in Tirat Carmel or Hebron. The aim of the researcher was to understand how the local style was created and why certain styles remained popular over the years. The biblical sandal has become an integral part of Israeliness and has had a profound influence on lifestyle in the country, as well as stylistic language (and the resistance to it) and continuity.
“I researched sandals for three years,” says El Or. “So of course I ended up reading a lot about the history of the Israeli shoe industry. Israel was a young country trying to develop its economy and lots of people had come here from around the world. Israel was busy creating a new language, new music and new cuisine. If you ask a designer if they were influenced by a new Israeli stylistic language, they start to fidget and proclaim that their style is completely individualistic. But if you stop and look, you’ll see that there is guiding line of Israeli style, that the place has had a tremendous influence. It’s very Israeli.”
The Eretz Israel Museum exhibition takes visitors back 2,000 years in an attempt to understand why we call them biblical sandals. Is this really the type of footwear that was worn during the biblical period, or was this a more recent invention?
“We’ve found clear evidence from artwork found all over Mesopotamia as well as actual sandals that were uncovered in tombs of Egyptian pharaohs,” El Or continues, “that there were indeed sandals, but not this exact style. The sandals that were most popular in our area were between-the-toes sandals. So my question was, why did the two-strap sandals become so popular, and how did they come to be known as biblical sandals?”
Over the years, sandals became more widely accepted, especially among the Romans, who’d been searching for stronger shoes that could grip soldiers’ legs well. Later, straps that tied up the calves were added, which some sources say might have provided protection from arrows.
“As sandals began being worn over a larger geographical area, we see that more and more had straps across the foot as opposed to between the toes. One advantage to these shoes was that they could be worn with socks,” explains El Or. “These became popular even in Central Europe, and Jewish shoemakers who made aliyah in the 1930s began manufacturing such sandals in kibbutz factories. In Germany, these sandals are referred to as Jesus sandals, since these are the type of sandals people were believed to have worn in the Holy Land during that era.
“One of the main focuses of my exhibition is Josef Rosenbluth Artzi. He founded the shoe company Nimrod, and was responsible for the design of the biblical Israeli sandal. He is the person responsible for changing the identity of this sandal. Now people began associating this style of shoe with Israel.”
Rosenbluth Artzi was extremely successful, especially among tourists, who began buying them up and taking them back home with them overseas. “Tourists are always searching for items that are very Israeli and Rosenbluth Artzi provided them with something that was quintessentially Israeli. Between the 1967 and 1973 wars, Israeli style began to crystallize in a number of ways. We can see how the juxtaposition of Jewish history in the Diaspora, and Jewish roots in the Holy Land, led to the creation of something so incredibly identifiable as Israeli.”
At the exhibition, visitors will find classic exhibits such as pictures and video clips alongside new displays of the first Teva Naot factories and the first shoemaker shop that operated on Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, which now offers sandal-making workshops open to the public run by the original owner’s grandson. There’s even a miniature reconstruction of the shoemaker’s shop in the exhibition.
“I’ve also included new sandals in the exhibition to show how this same style continues to remain popular despite the new and innovative technologies that are currently available,” adds El Or. “This is extremely significant when you’re dealing with local style. If the style is strong enough, then even when new shoe-making methods are introduced, the general style remains constant. For example, when Shoresh (Source) sandals became trendy, you’ll see that the most popular style is two straps across, the exact same shape as biblical sandals.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.