The Day of His Birth — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The quarter-moon hovers low on the horizon as Gadi speeds the pickup truck the length of the Jezreel valley. From the passenger seat I gaze up at the stars sparkling above the Hill of Moreh, where Gideon mustered his troops. It’s my second trip down the valley this night to the hospital in Afula. In predawn darkness I think: my third child will be born this morning.

In remembering that night, I recall a poem by Avraham Halfi, versifier of dark nights and the radiance of the soul. For Halfi the moon is an illusion. Those who see it as such are blind—they do not understand that it is God’s lantern.

A sightless God with lantern in hand
Seeks a path in the evening dusk
And everyone says:

Here comes the moon
And like a tree it rises
Pouring light on the road.

Yet God, too, cannot see. He is blind, like justice, like a man groping his way forward on a moonless night.

The road is empty. It’s the ninth day of Shevat, January 24, 1991. We are in the first week of the Gulf War. While none of the rockets Saddam has fired at Israel has had a chemical warhead or landed anywhere near Jezreel, most of the nighttime truck drivers and tractor operators are staying at home with their families, close by their sealed rooms. At Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, where my family is living for the year, we recite Psalm 83 every morning and evening: “Do not keep silence, O God: do not hold thy peace, and be still O God. For lo, thy enemies make a tumult, and they who hate the have lifted up the head.… who said, let us seize for our possession the pastures of God.”

When Gadi dropped Ilana and me to the hospital in yesterday’s twilight hours, we entered a maternity ward on war footing—every non-critical patient had been sent home and cartons of medicine, bandages, and Atropine were piled up along the corridors. Ilana’s contractions continued at their initial slow pace for a couple hours. The doctors told me to go home to be with my five-year-old daughter Mizmor and three-and-a-half year-old son Asor in case there was another attack. They’d call me when labor began to progress. I’d have plenty of time to make the half-hour trip from the kibbutz to Afula for the birth.

The call came later that night and I summoned Gadi, our designated driver, to take me to my wife.

Gadi reminds me that the Hill of Moreh is also called “the little Mt. Hermon.” I think of my reserve unit buddies, who will today sign out of the snowy and wind-battered outposts we’d manned for the previous month. I’d been with them until just two days ago, when I was finally given an early discharge.

He drops me off at the main entrance and I walk through an empty lobby to take the elevator up to the maternity floor. When I emerge I find Ilana sitting on a bench in the darkened lobby bent over as a contraction ripples through her abdomen. I sit down and put my arm around her. She smiles.

“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in the ward?”

“The nurse told me to walk around a little. She said it would get the contractions going.”

“How long?”
“Almost an hour. Since they called you.”

A beam of light cuts through the lobby as a ward door opens. A heavy-eyed nurse follows it.

“Ilana, where have you been? How often are the contractions coming?”

“Every three minutes or so.”

“Three minutes! Get right in here!”

They take Ilana straight into the delivery room, where a quick examination shows that she is almost completely dilated.

“Good thing they thought to look for her,” says the midwife. “She would have had the baby in the lobby.”

It’s our third baby so we know the routine. Ilana firmly turns down anesthesia and reminds the midwife that we want a natural birth, with no shaving, cutting, or other unnecessary procedures. I sit at her side, by her feet, and coach her in her breathing exercises. The midwife watches the monitor. I look up at her, and I see an expression of concern cross her face. She tells the nurse to call in the obstetrician. The doctor strides in, looks at the monitor, and then punches Ilana in the stomach with his forearm.

“What the hell are you doing?!” I shout in fury, but then the baby’s head emerges and the midwife swiftly unwraps the umbilical cord from around the newborn’s neck.

“It’s a boy!” I call out to Ilana.

“It’s a procedure we learn in training,” the doctor apologizes. “We saw there was distress, that he wasn’t breathing. We had to get him out quick so that oxygen would get to his brain. The body punch is the best way of getting him out quickly.”

The midwife hands our son to Ilana, who cradles him in her hand and weeps softly. I touch his soft skin and kiss Ilana on the forehead. A few minutes later the midwife takes my boy to be weighed and washed. At Ilana’s behest, I do not leave him for a minute and make sure that the baby whose data gets recorded and who gets placed in the nursery is ours. As I follow her I look out a window and see the lights of Afula glittering in the breaking dawn.

In Halfi’s poem, the moonlight of the God’s lantern reflects off the roofs of the earth and the firmament above. God’s light permeates all and envelops the poet. Yet God himself is unable to see it.

The rooftops sparkle like a looking glass
Leafy branches of light anoint me
And above the city, within sail-clouds
The stars moor on a skyward shore.

I return to Ilana. She is smiling and humming as if she has just been for a morning stroll. She wants her baby back and I assure her that she will soon have him in her room. I tell her that the doctor has checked and confirmed that everything is in working order—heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and the rest. We talk about the name we will give him at his brit milah, his circumcision ceremony eight days hence. Mizmor’s and Asor’s names both came from the Book of Psalms, so it is natural for us to look there. We consider several possibilities, but none really catches our imaginations. Then I think of that psalm we have been reciting in synagogue during the war. There’s that word “pastures,” so peaceful and green, so appropriate to our home at the kibbutz. And it appears, too, in a psalm we sing every Shabbat afternoon:

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters.
He Restores my soul: he leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

In Hebrew, the word that means “pastures” (or “oasis” or any green place) is “Niot.” But there’s a small problem. The word is in construct form, a declension that never stands alone. It requires completion.

“He’ll complete it himself, in his life,” Ilana says.

Because there’s a war on, the hospital is required to keep beds free. So Ilana and I and Niot are picked up by Gadi and driven home to the kibbutz that very afternoon. Before we leave the hospital, Niot receives his first gift—a “mamat,” the sealed tent in which we are to place him in the event of a missile alert, to enable him to breathe if he is surrounded by Saddam’s chemicals and gases.

In the third stanza of his poem, Halfi looks inward. God’s light has left him in the dark, but it wells up within him in the form of a petition, perhaps to God or perhaps to the universe as a whole as contained within the human soul. The light now emerges from human eyes, and it is this light that will enable God to imbue his creation with compassion and absolution:

May forgiveness beautify all hearts
No soul is foul or at fault
There are no sinners among us.
We are weary of drifting in the dark.
And blind God will forgive in the light of our eyes.

A month ago, twenty years after his birth, my son Niot, a proud soldier in the Golani Brigade, died in a diving accident in Eilat. The heart nurtured in Ilana’s womb beats and gives life now in another breast. His name remains incomplete.

At the end of the shiva, the seven-day morning period, I read Avraham Halfi’s poem at his grave on Mt. Herzl.

The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of our blind, light-giving God forever and ever.

Two of these “Necessary Stories” columns were translations of letters I wrote to Niot, one before his high school trip to Poland and the other at the time of his enlistment.

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11 thoughts on “The Day of His Birth — “Necessary Stories” column from <em>The Jerusalem Report</em>”

  1. thank you for this story. My thoughts are with you and your family. May Niot’s memory always be a blessing.

  2. The ability to see fear, yet hope, is a great gift to others in the world. I cannot understand by even half what you write, for I am childless. But upon reading your quote from the poet

    “A sightless God with lantern in hand
    Seeks a path in the evening dusk
    And everyone says:

    Here comes the moon
    And like a tree it rises
    Pouring light on the road.”

    I saw the great gift that Judaism can (can) give to all. Your warrant is strong. It will be heard. Pray, do not stop.

    “And blind God will forgive in the light of our eyes. “

  3. Haim, I wish you and your family a long life. Thank you for sharing this beautiful column.

  4. Dear Haim and Ilana,
    Many will tell you Niot’s name, and Niot himself most of all, did not stay incomplete. He touched many, and his ready smile and easy but hard-won self confidence stood testimony to all he had fought for, and won. May you know no more sorrow.

  5. I am right now reading Haim’s book, Company C. So it is with great shock that I read about this tragedy in the life of the author. Please continue your eloquent and sensible writings, and I hope for only future blessings in your life.

  6. Thanks Haim for sharing with us these past words that you wrote years ago. Just read the one describing Niot’s birth. Indeed deeply moving.
    חג שמח לך ולמשפחה

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