Family Matters: Basket in the Nile
I am seated in a dim room, my son lying on a bed beside me. His eyes are closed, his thick dark lashes brushing his pale cheeks, his golden hair tousled around his fragile face, an IV tube piercing his arm.
This night is different than all other nights. a It is the first time in my life that I am not seated at a Seder table on the eve of Passover.
We are alone in a hospital room somewhere in the center of Israel, while in homes all around us families are gathering to recite the familiar story.
He arrived here last night with slight stomach pain, and by three in the morning the doctors had made a slit in his abdomen, cut through the stomach wall and removed his appendix. And now, here he is, still asleep 16 hours later in Assaf Harofeh hospital, near Ramle, while the rest of our family gathers around a Seder table a few miles away at the home of my sister-in-law. There is no food here—not for him since he must fast, and not for me since the cafeteria is closed for the holiday. No wine, no matza, no family: just the two of us alone in a dark room.
Ha-laila ha-zeh kulanu mesubin.
On this night my son is reclining.
He sleeps fitfully. he opens his eyes occasionally, gropes my arm to make sure I am still there and, in what sounds like a delirious state, he utters staccato sentences: “There is a mother. She has a daughter. The daughter dies. The mother shouts. She is dead.” His head flops back onto the pillow; he closes his eyes again. Until the next time: “There is a mother….”
It sounds like a nightmare, but I know he is trying to tell me what he saw in the emergency room when he arrived the night before with his father. A young girl wheeled in on a stretcher, without a pulse. Feverish efforts. The doctors emerge from a room. A mother shrieks. Nooooo. They bring her a wheelchair. She refuses to sit down. More shrieks. The father shouts. My son stares in disbelief until the doctor calls his name.
A world has fallen apart.
My child, though, is safe. In a day or two, he will be walking around, joking, arguing and complaining. He lies here now with these tubes attached, looking frail, but I know that all this will be over soon. He is one of the lucky ones. Passed over.
Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh.
I lean forward gingerly and then rise as the familiar words grow louder. I drift across the shadowy room, searching for the voices. I follow the light into the hallway, and there I see them: Seated in a bright communal area, looking like a slide projected onto a screen in a dark movie theater, is a family seated around a table set with real dishes, a white table cloth, wineglasses and matzot. A mother clutches a tiny child. The father, wearing a white kippa, recites blessings. Around the small, rectangular table sit two sets of grandparents, the women dressed festively—as though this hospital lobby was where they had planned to hold the Seder all along. A grandfather fills the wineglasses. Now the father is holding the child, who is wrapped in a blanket.
I listen for a while as he reads. His voice seems to crack with emotion.
Dam, tzfardea, kinnim; blood, frogs, lice…
Does he, too, feel vulnerable as he recites the litany of plagues, holding his tiny child in one arm?
Makat bekhorot. The Death of the Firstborn.
I freeze. A thousand worlds destroyed in a night.
I find it hard to rejoice or even feel relief over my enemy’s demise. Harder this night than on other nights.
A few hours ago, when it was still light, I strolled down the hallway, passing my new neighbors.
In the next room, there was an Ethiopian family; the two toddlers played peekaboo with me while they waited for some attention from their parents, who hovered around the bed of an older sibling. As I passed a vending machine a few other children, who belong to the Bedouin family across the hall, asked me in Arabic to help them procure a snack from the machine, which was not functioning during Passover. Farther down the hall, I recognized a Russian-born woman from my neighborhood in Modi’in—she was visiting her granddaughter, a 1-year-old, her twig of an arm in a cast. There were women in hijabs, women clutching small books of Psalms, women in tight jeans and T-shirts, some lying in beds huddled next to a child, others pacing the room, all of them with the same pleading look in their eyes.
And then there is this family I had not even noticed earlier in the day, who seemed to have come out of the woodwork at dusk to light up the lobby, filling it with chants and songs—a surreal dream.
Avadim hayinu, hayinu…
For my son, Passover has never been about the plagues, or even about the Exodus from Egypt. When he first began to grasp the story in nursery school he took one lesson, one scene to heart: the baby drifting down the Nile in a reed basket.
When he was 4, he found a baby doll in a trove of toys passed on by older cousins and named it Moshe (even though the doll has little anatomical resemblance to a Moshe). Seven years later, he still rocks little Moshe to sleep, a dutiful parent. “Moshe has no mother, just me,” he says. “And you and Dad, of course.” His friends have long ago discarded their dolls and stuffed animals; some are already showing interest in girls. My son is a lot like them in the daytime: He goes to judo, watches cartoons, zaps aliens on his computer, but at night, his job is to safeguard baby Moshe.
After all, he really is Moshe.
He is the young baby who was left not on a river, but in a hospital in Russia, by a woman who knew she could not raise him, and seeing his tiny angelic face, first in a photo and then in person, I knew that I could.
Eleven years later and Matan (my gift) is reclining beside me, baby Moshe at the edge of his hospital bed. I have missed Rutie’s gefilte fish, the afikoman, the banter of the aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, the rote reading of the Haggada faster and faster as the evening progresses and guests become impatient to bring on the food. I have not sampled the haroset, wiped the horseradish stains from my daughter’s white dress or sung “Dayenu” out of tune.
I have missed our family Seder.
Yet never before have I experienced the Passover story in such sharp relief as I have here tonight in the darkness, voices humming in the distance, my son lying next to me.
Not the story of thousands of innocent lives taken by a powerful God for a larger purpose. Not even the story of the omnipotent God sparing the firstborn Jewish children. No, tonight I identify with the drama that takes place quietly on the sidelines, the one in which a woman scoops up a helpless baby—blind to nationality, to destiny, to religion, her eyes locked firmly on those of a little boy.