Old shoes

The sneaker in the picture is black leather. It has a slightly pebbled texture, yet is smooth to the touch. The laces are a stretchy nylon that holds a knot well. The soles, tough black rubber, molded with stiff ridges under the arch, are attached with a band of white—separating top from bottom. I can still feel the way those shoes wrapped up and over the sides of my feet holding strong and tight, cupping my arch from underneath. I remember how they snugged close just over my ankle for support and the bounce that they added after a long day in work shoes. For years, lacing them up each Tuesday night was a ritual delineating the rest of the week from game time. With them began the weekly dose of pivots and passes, hit and missed shots, skinned knees after loose balls, arguments, curses, laughter, elbows to ribs and all the general sweaty camaraderie of middle-aged basketball.

At some point, after one too many smashed toes, torn muscles and jammed fingers, my Tuesday evenings were given over to more sedate pursuits. The shoes got a rest. They sat gathering dust until my sixteen-year-old, probably without permission, decided to scavenge them from the back of my closet. On his thinner feet there was room for two socks, helping to keep him warm during the hours of intense inactivity he spent sitting in the cold beit midrash of his school. Once we had spent our time together, hiking, biking, and playing endless rounds of one-on-one and H-O-R-S-E. But, eventually he put that aside. Instead we learned Talmud together. No more ball for him. For nearly a year, his only pastime was Torah study. I don’t know where the shoes are now.

In the picture, though, one sneaker lies on its side in the middle of the frame. To the left: a pair of crumpled pants, part of a curving belt, freed from the waist loops, and a faded orange ribbon—a worn-out reminder of Gush Katif. On the right, spread in an uneven layer on the grouted terrazzo floor, is a thick smear of sticky, drying blood. The dark red stain is denser further from the shoe, as if a painter spread it from the far edge to the middle with a spatula, leaving off before evenly finishing the job.

Someone took my old shoes off my son—probably a medic frantically searching for some sign that this thin, blond boy, lying in a pool of blood on the cold stone floor, might have a hope… before realizing there was none. Whoever it was left them, along with the pants, on the floor and a picture was taken, perhaps while my son’s stripped body was being zipped into its white body bag. Whoever took it had no inkling of what those shoes contained.

They held more than the sweat of a hundred blocked shots and crafty steals and hard fought rebounds and showing my sons how to hit the backboard high from two steps above the baseline. More than memories of pushing a beginning-to-feel-its-years body into the pseudo battle of head fakes and off-color jokes which got left behind on the court each week as aging combatants turned back into clerks and accountants and teachers. These black Nikes were passed down from a father holding onto to a piece of his own youth to a son on the cusp of adulthood, beginning to be able to (literally) fill his own father’s shoes. Once they squeaked and skidded across the paint, later they trod quietly before dawn from dorm room to study hall for early morning prayers.

They were on Avraham David’s feet that night when bewildered by the gunshots ringing out in the library, he rose up from where he sat, pivoted right and darted between the stacks. I can imagine him pushing his chair back, standing, feeling for the grip of those rubber soles on the stone tile and making his move. The mismatch between sixteen-year-old high school student and full-grown, heavily-armed terrorist ended with my son’s murder. Those old Nikes had played their last. All that’s left of them is a picture. And the knowledge that my son’s salvage had, if only briefly, taken a piece of me—old, sweaty, stained as it was—and made it his own. What more can a father ever really expect?

In loving memory of my son, Avraham David Moses (Hyd), killed six years ago today in Mercaz Harav.

About the Author
Naftali Moses, born in NYC, has lived in Israel for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in medical history from Bar-Ilan University, and teaches and writes on the nexus of medicine and Judaism. The author of "Really Dead?" and "Mourning Under Glass", he has also translated several books on Jewish thought into English, published on philosophy in the Mishna, and aggadah.
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