Vincent van Gogh obsessed about shoes, old shoes, work shoes, peasant shoes, worn and cracked. Some of his finest paintings are these heavily textured ones composed of darks and dulls, so different from the brilliant colors of better known paintings, his sunflowers, for instance. But there is a weight and dignity, even a pathos, to these old shoes, and they occupy a permanent place at the back of my mind. Here is one such painting:
Well, last week our visiting friends from Cologne, Germany wanted to go to the National Yiddish Book Center. They were curious about how close Yiddish is to German, and whether or how much they could understand it. So we got in the car and drove to neighboring Amherst, and spent several hours wandering through the vast repository of Yiddish-language books, with its exhibits and games and tempting gift shop.
The building is of unpainted wood, with many “roofs” (you can get an idea from the linked website). It’s intended to resemble a shtetl, a little town of Poland or Russia, plunked down in an abandoned apple orchard in New England. An interesting place to visit:
As we wandered through the orchard, and the gardens surrounding the Book Center, we came to a low stone wall, and behold, there on the wall, not another person in view, we saw this:
From the front, the resemblance seemed even more striking:
And I thought — as one inevitably thinks at the National Yiddish Book Center — of all the vanished, the language, those who spoke the language, those who wore the shoes, the shoes themselves, Van Gogh who painted shoes —
But we were there, one American, two Germans, all old enough to remember, we were there together in friendship and love, and it seemed something to celebrate, all bound up in an image of a pair of old abandoned shoes.