I was 9 when I walked down the stairs in my childhood home to see my father crying for the first time. My maternal grandfather had died, and my father was devastated. A week later, just after the shiva ended, I saw my mother and father sitting on the floor of my grandfather’s bedroom, cutting his shoes with scissors. I watched as they sliced apart his leather oxfords, and his flannel house shoes. And once they were all destroyed, they brought them out to the trash. I opened the front door so I could get a closer look.
“Why are you doing that?” I shouted.
“It’s so no one can walk in Grandpa Harry’s shoes” my dad said. I must have still looked confused. “It’s just something we do,” he said as he walked back towards the house.
My father was considered a sage in our family. He was the oldest, and wisest, of seven siblings, and taught us all how to live life. After he died, stories came pouring in from family and friends about how he’d led them on the right path and showed them what was truly important. His life lessons always included superstitions—or bubbe-meises as my grandmother called them: He placed a hamsa below the crib of his children and grandchildren (to ward off the evil eye), believed one should never visit a cemetery while pregnant (to avoid death while you’re creating life), and insisted that the shoes of his deceased relatives should be cut with scissors and thrown away. Some of these superstitions had no clear origin or explanation, but who was going to argue with someone so insightful? They were important to my father, so my mother, siblings, and I adopted them, too. Even though I could never find a reliable source for these superstitions, I’ve continued believing (or at least observing) some of these bubbe-meises as an adult, while raising my own children—because, what if something bad happens?
I was reminded of my father’s shoe tradition when my mother-in-law passed away, three years ago. When I returned to Brooklyn from her shiva in Israel, I brought home the items of hers I most cherished. A few tablecloths, a silver cup, and the gold sandals she wore to our wedding. When I tried to store them at my parents’ house, my father wouldn’t have it.
“You don’t wear the shoes of someone who’s passed,” he said, nodding his head, looking shocked and disappointed.
“But what if I just keep them to remember her by?” I wondered if there was a rule against that, too.
Without looking up at me, he shook his head no, and so I brought them back to our apartment where they sat in a box underneath my bed. I still didn’t understand the tradition, or why he was so attached to it, until last year. Because in my father’s version of Judaism, you had to cut and throw away someone’s shoes when they passed. I thought back to when my grandfather died and I asked about the ritual. He said it was so that no one walked in someone else’s shoes. Literally. I attempted to find a meaning in this by consulting more religious family members, and of course Google. But I could never really find a clear answer.
While my father was battling cancer for over four years, I did whatever I could to comfort him. His weight and appetite fluctuated weekly, but his shoe size didn’t. So I bought him shoes. It’s not that I thought they were going to cure his cancer, but maybe they could make him comfortable for a bit longer? I needed to take control of an uncontrollable situation, and so I went shoe shopping.
I got him gray Nike sneakers to go for walks after he had part of his lung removed. I got him Allbirds wool slip-ons when he was too weak to tie his shoelaces himself. And I got him backless slippers so he could walk around the hospital comfortably during his final days.
When my father died in March 2020, my husband, daughter, and I came to stay with my mom for the shiva. Seven days turned into seven months, as New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. We slowly started to make my old home into our new home. To make it comfortable, we had to make space. To make space, we had to get rid of stuff. And the room most suitable for our 9-month-old daughter was where my father kept his shoes.
We knew my father would want all of his shoes cut up. We just didn’t think we’d have to do it so soon. We knew this day was approaching, but it still felt like a shocking reminder that he was really gone. Deciding what to keep and what to let go of is always heart-wrenching when someone dies. But because of my father’s superstitions, we didn’t have to make those decisions with his shoes.
The week after my father passed, we sat on the floor of his bedroom and used scissors to cut a small slash into all of his shoes. We found some unworn shoes, which we deemed acceptable for my husband to wear. I found my dad’s signature leather loafer that he bought various versions of throughout his life. I hid those under my bed. I couldn’t bear to throw them out. We even got rid of the new slippers I bought him when we still thought he was coming home from the hospital. These shoes represented a different stage of his journey with cancer. The shoes to walk and heal. The shoes to relax and recover. And the shoes to succumb, and eventually pass. With tears pouring down my face, I held the black garbage bag open as my mother dumped them in and we dragged them out to the trash.
Usually, my family hangs onto stuff for dear life. And here I was, forced to destroy my father’s shoes, the things I thought could help save him from cancer, because of some bubbe-meise. But it was my father’s bubbe-meise. And I had to.
I learned more about my father’s relationship to Judaism when he was gone than when he was alive. I learned what was important to him, and from that, what was important to me. I didn’t attend my father’s unveiling because I was six months pregnant. I wanted to be there, but knew he’d want me to stay home. And I walk around with a hamsa pinned to my daughter’s stroller now.
When people used to ask what sect of Judaism my family identifies with, we’d say “traditional,” even though that’s not actually a sect. But that’s who we are. On Friday nights, we had to stay home and have Shabbat dinner as a family, but my dad also had to open his store and work on Saturdays. We kept a kosher home, never mixing milk and meat, but were allowed to eat shrimp at our favorite Chinese restaurant. My dad spent all day praying at synagogue on the High Holidays, but rarely visited the rest of the year. Most importantly, we never veered from these traditions, as strange and baffling as they were. One Passover, I tried replacing our Maxwell House Haggada with a new version written by my favorite author, Jonathan Safran Foer. My father indulged me for two or three pages, then shut the book, pushed it aside, and started over from the version we’d been using for over 30 years. We’re the type of Jews who follow traditions, wherever they come from. And some of these customs can’t be explained.
Yet I still searched for a meaning around this shoe ritual. I found that some interpretations say you’re not supposed to wear the shoes of a deceased person. And some say that only the shoes worn by the deceased during their final illness, or even death, should be discarded. Still, I couldn’t find anything about cutting the shoes before discarding them. And why did my father insist we had to throw them all out? Why were we free to keep and donate his other clothes, but not his shoes? I even reached out to a rabbi whom I trust and respect. Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff teaches a class about the Jewish view on reincarnation and the soul. From him, I learned that this tradition isn’t based on Talmudic law, but in Kabbalstic practices. He says there’s a strong link between mourning and shoes in Judaism. On Yom Kippur, we have restrictions on what type of shoes we can wear, and during shiva, we’re told not to even wear shoes. “Kabbalists, and tradition, teach us that the shoe represents the vessel that holds the body,” he told me. “And just as the shoe holds the body, the body holds the soul.”
This was the closest I could come to finding a meaning. But after countless hours of searching, Googling, and trying to connect the dots, I realized I didn’t need a deeper meaning. The meaning was that it meant something to my father. And therefore, it means something to me.
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.