I am often asked how I find inspiration for my stories. They emerge from a variety of sources – sometimes unexpected incidents that lead me to explore new paths and produce a host of ideas.
One such event occurred recently on discovering the Mikanmor boutique in Jerusalem where a group of designers covering fashion, textile design, object design and jewellery combine their talents to produce a distinctive selection of stunning products made from leather.
Mikanmor in Jerusalem
I was so impressed by their creativity and dedication that I decided to write about them but how best to tell their tale? I chose to start with the origins of leather. Where did it begin? How did it develop and what significance did it have in Jewish culture?
Tanning leather is one of the oldest known human activities. Cave paintings from early paleolithic times in Spain illustrate the existence of leather clothing. Archaeological finds from 40,000 and 10,000 years ago revealed tools, similar to those used much later for cleaning hides. There is also ample evidence from Egyptian wall paintings of the uses of leather and Homer’s writings refer to its role in Ancient Greece.
Animal skins were plentiful but became stiff when cold and rotted in heat, being unusable without cleaning and curing. Ancient methods were noxious. Once the hair was removed tanners pounded excrement from dogs or pigeons into the skin and soaked it in a solution of animal brains. This undoubtedly accounted for its bad smell, particularly when combined with decaying flesh. The tanner then trod the skins with his bare feet for three hours. Children were employed to collect human urine from ‘piss pots’ in the towns to be used in the process.
Surprisingly animal brains are still used today by outdoorsmen (hunting and shooting types) for tanning hides. Websites abound extolling the superlative effect on leather using this method. Later processes used vegetable tannin from tree bark and also chromium which gives the leather a distinctive blue colour.
What I describe merely scratches the surface of a very complex process that once took up to a year, but now is just a few of days. Traditional tanning continues at Fez in Morocco. What you perhaps do not know is that Fez is listed as one of the ‘ten smelliest but most interesting places for tourists to visit.’ Curious what people choose to do on vacations!
tanneries in Fez, Morocco
I had my own experience of noisome leather many years ago when, as a middle-class Jewish housewife and mother of three boys, I enrolled to study sociology at Durham University. Wanting to fit into the somewhat hippy environment I bought, as was popular then, an Afghan coat. I loved it but never understood why it smelled so bad, a factor which resulted in the coat and I eventually parting company. Unbelievably, it is only whilst researching this story now that I discovered my coat was malodorous because it had been cured with sheep urine… had I known then, my enthusiasm to buy would have faded rapidly.
my university Afghan coat in the 1970’s
The Jewish connection with hides dates back to the Book of Genesis where it is recorded that God gave Adam and Eve ‘coats of skin” when they realised they were naked.
According to the Mishnah, Jewish tanneries had to be situated on the eastern side of a town at least 50 cubits (25 metres) away from private homes because it was such a smelly process. Locals could prevent their neighbours from becoming tanners who in addition were forbidden to enter the Temple. Their status was rock bottom owing to the terrible smell that permeated their flesh – as The Talmud says “The world cannot exist without a perfume-maker or a tanner – happy is he whose craft is a perfume-maker, woe to him who is a tanner.”
The Mishnah also states that a man who works as a tanner can be compelled to give his wife a divorce if she demands it. Perhaps this ruling against bad odours could be extended today to include those who take public transport but seemingly choose to shower only once a month, whether they need it or not.
In nomadic times leather was used for making vessels that could easily transport water and olive oil. It was also used for a wide range of tools and utensils and provided warriors with weapons, shields and helmets.
Leather shoes are mentioned in the Bible – from the Song of Songs – ‘How beautiful are thy feet in sandals’- highly relevant in today’s Israel where sandals are the norm for men and women for at least eight months of the year. The importance of owning footwear is also spelled out in the Talmud: ‘A man should sell the roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet’.
In Jewish ritual, leather has a significant role. The scrolls of the Torah are made of parchment from the skin of a sheep, as is the biblical text inside a Mezuzah – a small box fixed to doorposts. Men wear Tefillin for their daily prayers. All these items can only use skins of kosher animals in their preparation which must be supervised by a rabbi.Mezuza
Another traditional ceremony is ‘Chalitza’, when a childless widow can be released from the biblical injunction to marry her deceased husband’s brother. He puts on a special leather sandal, she undoes the laces, removes it from his foot, throws it to the ground and spits on the ground. Job done.
In the Middle Ages, tanning was work for Jews because of its low status. From such modest beginnings trading in hides became an important area of Jewish commerce throughout Europe and beyond. Records attest to the numbers involved. In the late 17c 45 Jewish tanners and 730 shoemakers worked in Algiers. In Moravia in the early 18c two tanneries were Jewish owned and 79 leased by them. Bohemia had 86 Jewish tanners and furriers, 146 hide and leather merchants. In late 19c Germany there were hundreds of Jews producing purses, wallets and cases and their family names identified their profession – Lederer, Gerber, Ledermann and Peltz. Similarly in other countries – the lists are endless.
In Israel the industry was boosted by immigration from Europe in the 1930’s when 850 were employed in 61 firms. One major source of income during the Mandate was the production of around one million pairs of boots for the British army.
And now back to Mikanmor – they follow an ancient tradition but give it a very modern appeal. They told me that visitors to their studios love the ‘intoxicating aroma’ of the leather. I find it curious that a product with such a malodorous past can become so highly desirable and particularly attractive to the senses.
In 1781 King George lll’s glove maker, James Creed, was commissioned to perfume the gloves of the English Royal Court – necessary to hide the odour of the poor hygiene at that time. From this developed the perfume Royal English Leather. Creed is still one of the most prestigious perfumers in London.
Today the smell of ‘leather’ is the preferred fragrance for men along with tobacco. ‘Polo’ by Ralph Lauren claims to be ‘A masculine expression of wood, leather and tobacco and English Leather ‘Timberline’ ‘has a truly mesmerising aroma with a combination of woody and leather notes’ – ‘it can drop a woman at 50 yards’ – whatever that means.!
I myself have never knowingly experienced this, but am thankful that ‘real men’ (whoever they may be) have not yet gone as far as creating perfumes redolent of beer and sweat.
As for Mikanmor, I am grateful to them for introducing me to their wonderful products and especially for opening the door to a fascinating history that I enjoyed exploring, to my surprise, despite being a vegetarian.more mikanmor