Israelis’ Love Affair With Sandals

It transpires that so-called biblical sandals are a modern Israeli invention: the two straps that symbolize Israeliness.

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai archives

Of all the local items of clothing, biblical sandals not only became an iconic item but also were a sign of taste that defined the correct way for Israelis to dress. They originated with kibbutz shoemakers (after immigrating from Europe), found their way to Tel Aviv and were branded “an Israeli item” in the catalogues of the Nimrod shoe company starting in the 1960s (“From the country that takes its sandals seriously,” as they were advertised in English in 1986) and received further reinforcement through Srulik, the sabra figure in the cartoons by Dosh. The sandals symbolized Israeliness, the connection to the land, the link to an imagined Jewish past and mainly the need for one item that would downplay the differences between the various aspects of local identity.

“Sandals are a lost object because they’re a cliché, but we don’t have to flee from clichés,” says Prof. Tamar El Or, a professor of sociology and anthropology, who wrote the book “Sandals: An Anthropology of Israeli Style” recently published by Am Oved (in Hebrew). “I remember that for many years my uncles from America came to Israel and what they wanted were ‘Nimrod sandals,’ and I thought there was something about that that should be checked out. After all, Israelis identify one another abroad by their feet, even if they no longer wear sandals. And what you wear on your feet is a clear sign of who you are. I thought we could consider that for a moment and put aside all the symbolism.”

El Or slaughters several sacred cows, including the belief that the biblical sandals with which we are familiar really did originate in the biblical period. “This style is not related to authenticity,” she says. “In my research I discovered that the familiar biblical sandals were produced in Central Europe and were called ‘Jesus sandals.’ During the biblical period they wore totally different sandals, with lengthwise straps placed in the space between the big toe and the other toes but the person who linked them to an imagined past was Yosef Ben Artzi, one of the founders of Nimrod, who wanted to link the sandals to the Bible, to Masada, to Jewish archaeology. That was his Zionism, like that of his customers.”

But El Or’s research is not only a historical wandering in the wake of local sandals and their production processes, but mainly an attempt to learn about Israeli style and its forms, a study that tries to ask how it is that even after 50 years we’re living in an era of local stores that offer a simple and monochromatic style, casual dress styles and a rejection of overly dressy clothing.

“I wanted to learn about the sandals themselves,” she says. “I wanted to know what kind of industry surrounded them, where they bought their leather, and on the way to learn the lexicon of the styles, how it became etched as the right style, how the aesthetic became ethical and correct. And if this style became correct, we can see how it survived even when the technology changed with the introduction of rubber, Velcro and other technologies. It’s interesting that even after these changes Israelis still wanted this style, whether in upgraded biblical sandals or Source sandals, for example.”

How did this simple style originate?

The immigrants who came here had the needs of laborers, with values such as work, militarism, the movement and hiking. The kibbutzim began to look for styles that would be functional and also, because in the kibbutz environment everything ends up in the cooperative kibbutz laundry, and everyone has to share with everyone else, clothing begins to be standardized: something that will be simple and functional, something of aesthetic and ethical value.

“It was the kibbutz shoemakers who first produced the sandal with two width-wise straps, and that’s where the simple style was born, because it’s comfortable and it’s possible. So the people who come to the kibbutz and return to the city bring the sandals with them, because at the time people wanted to look like kibbutzniks. And the city begins to create fashion, like Ata and others, and creates an aesthetic identification with the people we admire even if we don’t live like them. And this aesthetic becomes the correct aesthetic.”

El Or describes how Nimrod understood this secret of simplicity, started to design the familiar simple style and was responsible for one of the dominant values in local fashion culture, which would continue almost to this day. “Nimrod designed for a Tel Aviv bourgeoisie that accepted the values of the Labor movement,” she says. “Eventually it would be part of Dizengoff Street and would constitute the basis for the slogan ‘Made in Tel Aviv’ to describe contemporary fashion, which has to be characterized by simplicity, a criterion that would stay with the Tel Aviv shopper and help her to reject the items that she would identify as too colorful or ornamental.”

In that sense the sandal is part of an overall concept that combines the aesthetic and the ethical. El Or describes the consolidation of the language that considers simplicity a trademark for something local that later is translated and becomes connected to Tel Aviv urbanity.

“There’s more than the history of fashion here,” she explains. “The choice of the simple sandals is only part of a general tendency, like local culture’s rejection of pop culture as something that’s fun and ornamental. It’s a sociology that comes from music and fashion, and through it one can say something about the class morality that developed here as a proper morality, gained control over Israeliness and produced goods that others wanted to buy as ‘Israeli.’

“Those who weren’t part of this Israeliness, whether they wanted to dress like dandies, in bell-bottom pants, colored shirts and a jacket, or those who wore flowered and decorated dresses, were ‘others’ and were called names. Everything collapsed into one style whose margins are this ‘other.’ It could be Mizrahim [from North Africa and the Middle East] who were branded freichas (bimbos), or immigrants from Russia who bring a new style that challenges the monochromaticism.”

Renowned designer Dorin Frankfurt designed biblical sandals for Nimrod in the early 1980s. “I took this style and turned it into something new, something that a contemporary glance will identify in recent brands such as Celine and Marni,” she says. “I flattened the sole and designed it as a thin leather sole, and painted the leather in gold and silver.”

But she doesn’t necessarily agree with the ethos of simplicity in Israeli fashion, at least since launching her own brand.

“When we started with the factory we opened it with a simple Mediterranean agenda, but I didn’t have any customers. Biblical sandals are based on minimalism, but that no longer exists. Wherever I look, I see women with glittering pantyhose, dyed red hair, colorful wide shirts and an overdressed look. Only around the late 1990s was there a return to the simple trend, which they simply called ‘minimalism.’”

Idit Barak, a lecturer in the fashion design department in the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, says that the ethos of simplicity entered new local design at the start of the millennium with designers like Alice of Shine, Sarah Braun and Roni Bar. “At the time I used to call it ‘the unironed look’ – there’s something in us that wants to look effortless,” she says. “It’s not cool to dress up. And if you want to think about what you wear, you have to look as though you didn’t work on it.

“That generation of designers worked with a lack of materials and an absence of haute couture traditions, and turned it into an aesthetic. Maybe like Nimrod sandals. Like them, it began out of a need, whereas now it’s already an aesthetic choice. But in recent years, with the entry of the foreign chain stores, the Internet and exposure to the world, things are different.”

“In Israel ‘to dress up’ is to take a risk,” insists El Or. “In my opinion we’re still continuing the ethos of simplicity. Look at the use of slip-ons, something that marks you as being on the way to getting dressed, but without actually being there All over the world it’s important to be nonchalant. But in Israel there’s still a desire for someone to tell us that getting dressed up is all right.”

And what will happen to the biblical sandal? What will become of it?

“The sandal is an amazing item. It’s found in museums such as the Pergamon in Berlin, and it actually belongs to the Fertile Crescent, not Israel. It had a unique life here and it will continue to have a life. The two straps that symbolize this Israeliness won’t disappear.”