It’s sad enough that retail stores are closing faster than Amazon Prime service delivers its packages, but my personal happy place closed its doors this week. The Manolo Blahnik flagship boutique on West 54th Street ended. You could almost hear Carrie Bradshaw sobbing. Manolo Blahnik’s stilettos shot to fame after the premiere of HBO’s Sex and the City in 1998.
Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, frequently professed her love for this shoe brand that included the famous sky-blue satin pair that was worn when she finally married her Mr. Big. The Manolos’ small shop was a jeweled temple of divine shoes, a magical kingdom for a shoe-obsessed female. I must confess that my own spiritual journey began with a pair of hot pink snakeskin sandals. The House of Faith N Fashion was born from the reality that in my synagogue, women were more interested in my shoes than my religious practices! Therefore, I figured, that if I could combine these two aspects of my life while teaching Torah, I would then achieve a most unique way to combine the world of spirituality and materialism, ruchniyus and gashmiyus.
I beg to ask the question: What does a pair of shoes have to do with the Torah? One can also say it’s for shalom bayis, peace in the marital home, as Manolo Blahnik once said, “Men tell me that I’ve saved their marriages. It costs them a fortune in shoes, but it’s cheaper than a divorce. So, I’m still useful, you see.” Or that adorable children’s book Shani’s Shoebox by Rinat Hoffer, in which a little girl saves the box from her new Rosh Hashanah shoes and uses it to celebrate every Jewish holiday till the next Rosh Hashanah arrives and she gets her new pair of shoes again. Of course, the Torah has a much less frivolous approach to the meaning for shoes, with plenty of examples.
The Torah depicts shoes as signs of sensuousness, comfort, and pleasure with a strong emphasis on its wear of when and where. The Code of Jewish law (the Shulchan Aruch) has detailed instructions: When putting on shoes, the right shoe goes on first. When tying shoes, the left shoe is tied first. When shoes are taken off, the left shoe comes off first. This is based on the right being more important than the left. The right foot should not remain uncovered while the left is covered, a display of respect and modesty for the feet. Shoes should be tied from the left since knotted tefillin is worn on the left arm, so the tying of shoes replicates the tying of tefillin. During the shalosh regalim, when the priestly blessing is given by the kohanim, they must remove their shoes outside the sanctuary before their hands are washed by the Levites. There is a minhag (custom) amongst certain chasidic groups to remove their (leather) shoes before visiting a tzadik’s gravesite. This was derived from the command Hashem made to Moshe when he approached the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:5), “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” On the saddest day of the year, Tisha B’Av, we are prohibited from wearing leather shoes. The same prohibition applies on Yom Kippur. Chalitzah is a rather interesting and rare ceremony in which the brother of the deceased can choose to release his sister-in-law to marry someone else. The widow and her brother-in-law both appear before a rabbinical court, a beis din, consisting of five members. The brother-in-law wears on his right foot a chalitzah shoe. This special shoe is made from the skin of a kosher animal and consists of two pieces sewn together with leather straps. It must not contain metal and is designed like a moccasin with long straps. I remember when my father had to perform this ceremony with my aunt. In the Megillah of Ruth, Naomi cleverly instructs her daughter-in-law Ruth in the rules of seduction, with her instruction to visit Boaz at night and uncover his feet. The Song of Songs 7:2 reads, “How beautiful are thy feet in sandals,” lovingly written by King David. The Talmud’s dream interpretation lists various dreams that signal negative portents: One of them is if you dream of a dead person coming back and removing your shoes. Such a vision, says the Talmud, is bad news, with a sure visit by the Malach Hamaves, the angel of Death. Malachi’s angels are described as being barefoot. The absence of shoes represents the shedding of the body and identification with the soul. The kohen gadol, as ornately dressed as I described previously, was instructed to walk barefoot in order to remind him that his holy presence is deeply rooted in the ground.
Shoes in Jewish history have grown to haunt us. Upon my visit to Poland in 1990, I was struck and horrified by the endless piles of shoes in Auschwitz (concentration camp). Every Holocaust museum has an exhibit of piles of shoes, both children’s and adults. The Nazis removed the shoes as a sign of humiliation, despair, and certain death, leaving shoes to symbolize the paths that are taken and the road that will never be walked again.
“I’ve always believed that a beautiful shoe is useless unless it feels as wonderful as it looks,” says Stuart Weitzman, founder of Stuart Weitzman Shoes. I believe that a shoe can transform a person; after all, look how well Cinderella and Dorothy did with theirs. Shoe shopping can be elevated to include the dressing of a princess or queen. After all, aren’t we all Bnos Melech?
Tobi Rubinstein is a retired fashion and marketing executive of 35 years who currently produces runway and lifestyle events for NYFW, specializing in Israel’s leading artists and designers. She is the founder of The House of Faith N Fashion, fusing culture and Torah. Tobi was a fashion collaboration and guest expert for ABC, Geraldo Rivera, Huffington Post, Lifetime, NBC, Bravo, and Arise. She hosted her own radio and reality TV series. Tobi is a mother, wife, dog owner, and shoe lover.