The Human Spirit: If the sandal fits

The popular Shoresh sandal is a hi-tech version of footwear unearthed in our archeological digs.

sandal 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sandal 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To my mother and her siblings, the arrival of Pessah meant liberation from the camphor amulets and long underwear that Grandma Esther - and many other Eastern European immigrants - considered essential for New England winters. Our winters aren't nearly as cold, but Pessah marks the season of significant wardrobe change. When we are getting ready to change our prayers from rain to dew, sandals reappear as the national footwear. Dermatologists have demanded we abandon the old archetypical kibbutz hat, the kova tembel, for its lack of a protective brim, so sandals remain the ultimate icon of Israeli dress. In the Israeli section of the proposed KEO space time capsule which may be launched in 2010 carrying messages from the citizens of Earth to humanity 50,000 years from now, when it will reenter Earth's atmosphere, there's a pair of sandals along with the Bible, sunflower seeds for noshing and a handful of shekels. Among our world-famous sandals, those chosen for the ride into space are a pair from a company called Shoresh, the Hebrew for "root." It's called Source in English. The modest sandal is actually a hi-tech version of footwear unearthed in our archeological digs. I stopped by recently at the Source Vagabond Systems factory in the industrial zone of Tirat Carmel, a town just south of Haifa, to view the production of this sandal. Shoresh/Source sprawls over four large factories where 200 employees produce the sandals and the company's other products - mostly hydration systems for civilians and soldiers. Both the IDF and the US Marines have ordered hydration backpacks that carry up to 70 liters of water. Unlike most companies where workers sit back-to-back in assembly lines, these craftspersons face each other so they can chat while working. Each craftsperson makes a shoe from toe to heel, completing a pair instead of doing only a single task. Each sandal is subsequently numbered, and if a dreaded defect is discovered by a customer, it can be traced back to the individual shoemaker. Employees come from just about every Haifa-area ethnic group, and the sweet scent of glue is punctuated by special food dishes brought in from home and shared. As in a Japanese company, employees often sign on for life. Five percent of the profits are contributed back into the community through a variety of social programs, including a kids' after-school, employment agency and - talk about a green company - community-wide harvesting of the town's olives. According to the Source, one out of every 10 Israelis owns a pair of their sandals. HOW DID ALL this come about? The chief inventor and CEO of Shoresh is Yoram Gill, 50, a slim, soft-spoken, self-effacing sabra from Haifa with a pony tail who drives a 20-year-old Volvo. Shoresh, he says, is an expression of his Zionism. "I was a regular yoram," says Gill, using the derogatory expression for a naive, straight-laced guy. Everyone today calls him "Yoki." As a kid in Haifa he invented something akin to a pooper-scooper, marketing it to pet shops and even trying to interest the Tel Aviv Municipality. After graduating from the prestigious Reali High School, he served four years in the IDF, mostly in Shaldag, a special operations unit. He and his wife-to-be Daniella were among the small number of Israelis who 30 years ago set off on extended post-army backpacking trips abroad. They trekked in the Far East, North and South America. They loved the travel but weren't satisfied with the travel gear. When Yoki and Daniella returned after two years, Yoki emptied his bar mitzva savings account and bought a sewing machine. They rented a small apartment in Tel Aviv and set up their combined home and workshop. The first product was a belt to stash cash and valuables - always a problem for backpackers. They sold the belts in the handful of outfitting shops (there are more than 100 today). But the most important challenge of any trip is the right shoes. Some like to hike in boots, but Israelis prefer sandals. There was nothing on the market that was comfortable yet flexible and durable enough for varied terrain. For two years, Gill stayed up nights cutting out sandal shapes, gluing and tying straps made from different materials and in dozens of different configurations. The adventure sandal he wanted would be light enough to feel like a natural extension of the foot and able to withstand hikes up Peru's Machu Picchu or the sand on India's Goa beach. Finally, one evening in 1991, he screamed "eureka" and showed Daniella a sandal with a padded rubber sole and three waterproof, infinitely adjustable polypro straps that crossed in an "x" near the ankle. Shoe store owners and distributors didn't share his enthusiasm. They scoffed at his shoes, which lacked leather, style and pizzazz. "No one is going to buy these sandals," they predicted. So there he was, two weeks before Pessah 1991 with 500 pairs of shoes going nowhere. Then Gill got an idea. He knew who would like his sandals. He sent flyers to 700 tour guides who would be leading Society for the Protection of Nature hiking tours over Pessah vacation. He offered them his new sandals at a deep discount. Four hundred guides sent in orders for the first "adventure sandals." Tens of thousands followed these guides on holiday hikes up mountains and down wadis. They learned about Golan lava, Nabatean trails and Roman columbaria. But their minds weren't only on the history, flora and fauna. It turned out that they couldn't take their eyes off their guides' feet. The day after Pessah 1991, shoe stores were besieged by customers who wanted sandals just like their guides'. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Since then, more than 180,000 pairs of this sandal are sold every year, 120,000 of them in Israel. Alert trekkers spot their compatriots by that "x" in jungles and moors. So wherever you're out hiking this season, know that "x" marks a landsman. Happy Nisan, happy spring.