A Halizah shoe at the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto. In the background the ‘Judaism’ sign above a display of footwear of Jewish interest
Photos & text: Lydia Aisenberg
Normally, a museum focused on shoes would not be anywhere on my ‘to do’ list. However, during a working visit to Toronto, I found myself staying at a hotel opposite such a museum, and even though I appreciated the originality of the shoe box architecture of the building itself, I didn’t think its contents would be of particular interest to me. How wrong I was!
A few days later, with some hours to be footloose and fancyfree (excuse the pun), I decided to go exploring. Shoes on show were still not a draw - until the first blast of icy wind caught me whilst exiting the hotel. I immediately became sold on shoes and nipped pronto across the road to the Bata Shoe Museum.
After just a few minutes inside, I became engrossed in looking at and reading about some of the thousands of shoes, boots, sandals and other footwear and coverings. They make up the incredible collection of more than passionate about shoes collector and museum founder, Swiss born Sonja Bata (nee Wettstein). The footwear is both cleverly and attractively displayed in this glorious three-floor box of multi-soled surprise.
Always with an eye out for something of Jewish/Israeli interest to learn/write about, I could not have imagined anything of Jewish interest in a shoe museum. However, one of the first displays I came across depicted footwear associated with different periods of history, religions and cultures. It was not long before I was mesmerized by a hand sewn, soft brown leather shoe with a long white strap in a glass case. JUDAISM was written in large letters on the wall behind and below, and two display placards explaining some basic acts of Jewish faith and another giving an explanation about the Halitzah shoe, something I had never heard of before (maybe just as well).
The first sign, with a large menorah on the top, stated: “In Orthodox Judaism a blessing is said while putting on one’s shoes. The blessing reminds the wearer to be thankful for all that they have. At times of loss, however, shoes are often not worn. Leather shoes are considered symbolic of wealth, and in Orthodox Judaic practice, when a loved one dies, the grieving family shuns all leather footwear during shiva (mourning) as a sign of poverty, for without the deceased, they are poor.”
A second placard under the bold heading - JUDAISM - states:
“According to Biblical law, when a man dies and leaves his wife childless, it is the duty of his brother to marry his widow to perpetuate the family line. If the brother declines to marry his sister-in-law, the halizah ceremony is performed. The halizah shoe, which is the property of the community, is placed on the man’s foot and in front of witnesses, the widow unlaces the shoe and removes it, thereby releasing her brother-in-law from his obligation and freeing her to marry whomever she wishes.”
The objects in the museum are fascinating to say the least. Spanning thousands of years, six continents and myriad walks of life, the footwear on display is presented to the viewer as a vital key to understanding cultures and reveals many different attitudes to childhood, marriage, work, leisure and more. In other words, not only does one get to see hundreds of shoes, but to also learn so much about the people whose feet they adorned, the part of the world they trod, as well as their vastly different and often clashing cultures or religions.
Sonja (Wettstein) Bata was born in Zurich, trained as an architect but became involved with design of shoes after marrying the son of the Bata Shoe company founder. For decades, she travelled the world in search of footwear of every description, the result of which is the spectacularly diverse collection at the Bata Shoe museum. The grand collection of Sonja Bata numbers more than 13,000 incredible and often rare items dating back thousands of years.
It was only after I had been in the museum for a while that I connected the name Bata with the soft brown leather shoes I always wore to school in the 1950s in Wales (and polished like crazy on Sunday ready for Monday morning class inspection). That started an avalanche of shoe-related memories. For instance, the annual new pair of Clarks sandals for the summer holidays, the 1960s so-called Bovver boots left behind in Britain when I made aliyah and the hugely uncomfortable, almost crippling, stiletto-heeled sharp pointed shoes worn during the working day and then removed with delight. In their stead came the standard, decidedly ugly, kibbutz issue work boots and in the summer, kibbutz made sandals. The latter were then commonly known as Jesus sandals.
Exterior of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada
Leaving the Bata Shoe museum, the weather a little more user-friendly, I took a walk down Bloor, the main road where both the hotel and museum are situated. This area of Toronto is known as downtown. Just a block from the museum, where a really long road named Spadina crosses Bloor, I spied an enormous banner strung across a building advertising a Purim party. Curiosity and sadness not to be home on kibbutz for the Purim party with my grandchildren had me over the road in a jiffy to the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Center.
The impressive Jewish Community Center was abuzz with children all dressed up as everything and everyone imaginable. A coffee and sandwich bar brimmed over with older folk as teens rushed here, there and everywhere organizing activities for the costumed younger children.
I stayed for a while, chatted with a few people, felt a bit of an intruder and left – crashing into a waist-high large black and gold metal plaque diagonally placed on a pole close to the outer wall of the building. On top of the plaque in very bold letters is written “YOUNG MEN’S-YOUNG WOMEN’S HEBREW ASSOCIATION.” I had literally bumped into history, the plaque having been placed at this spot outside the JCC in 2009 by the Heritage Toronto organization. Not only was the sign full of interesting text but also black and white photos from the 1920s, 30s and 70s explaining about the beginnings, early in the last century, of athletic and social clubs which were established to offer recreational opportunities to Toronto’s young people.
In 1919 a number of those clubs joined to form an umbrella organization that developed by 1936 into the Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association. At first dedicated to sport, the MY-YWHA expanded to offer cultural programs and community services, and to serve children and adults. Larger facilities were constructed at Bloor and Spadina streets in 1953 and in another area, North York, in 1961 with the former being renamed the Jewish Community Center in 1978.
Checking my Toronto tourist map, I decided to take a walk down Spadina toward Lake Ontario. Why on a map do places always look a lot closer? I walked and walked and walked, fascinated by the Toronto University buildings and private houses along the way. Passing a school, an enormous rock looming over the fence around the front yard, I received a short, fascinating lesson in geology reading the sign attached to its midriff.
Rock of ages ... Bloor-Spadina Street sign of Toronto Jewish times
“This basic igneous boulder was found at a depth of 12 feet during the course of excavation for this school. The composition is a very rare type and is assumed to have been carried here from Caribou Lake, north of Parry Sound, by a glacier during the Great Ice Age, approximately 12,000 year ago.” Wow!
I passed through Toronto’s Chinatown, an experience in itself as I truly felt I had been transported in a flash to China and eventually saw the sun glimmering on water in the – what I thought - was near distance. Quite some time later, I was on the water’s edge and joined a dozen or so people walking their dogs through an area of preserved wetlands alongside the innovative Toronto Music Garden created by renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma in collaboration with a number of artists to interpret in nature the music of Bach’s First Suite.
The walk back to the hotel seemed shorter than that which took me to the shore of Lake Ontario. Purim was over at the JCC, dozens of excited, chattering and somewhat disheveled Spidermen, Cinderellas, Elsas and animals of all description spilling out of the building.
Reaching the hotel, glancing across the busy main road to the shoebox building on the other side and then looking down at my somewhat battered but, oh so comfortable sports shoes, I pondered whether they might not appreciate being donated to the Beta Shoe Museum, to rest on their laurels, heels and soles among their soulmates from over the ages.
However, my well-travelled, well-worn and well-loved footwear made the journey back to Israel with me after all. If only shoes could talk, not just walk …