Passover has long been my favorite holiday. In my parents’ home, the seder table is always filled to capacity with more people than the year before. As children, we created skits to perform, with Moses leading the Israelites to freedom, and Miriam singing and dancing, timbrels in hand. In a unique tradition that began before I was born, family members and guests arrive, song sheets in hand, ready to debut their original, Passover-themed lyrics to showtunes and pop songs.
I could never understand the grievances of friends who complained about the length of their families’ seders. I love every moment of our late-night celebrations, the songs — those from the Haggadah and our original numbers — serving as reminders of the joy in our religion, and the commentaries, both traditional and contemporary, breathe new life into an ancient story. When people tell me the seder is boring, I counter that they must be doing it wrong.
But, for our family, Passover has taken on new meaning in the last few years.
They persecuted us and put us under hard labor.
On Feb. 2, 2013, my second son was cut out of me after I hemorrhaged two liters of blood. One liter results in bedrest, but two liters — that was dancing with death. I was not conscious when he made his arrival, and it was hours before I could see him. I waited three days to hold him in my arms.
Postnatal hormones raging, fear encasing me, I tried desperately to learn the unique lingo of the NICU, to understand his chances of survival. As he had not yet developed the ability to swallow, his nourishment came through a feeding tube; his breathing, which was closely monitored, came with the assistance of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a kind of less-invasive ventilator; an incubator regulated his body temperature; and light therapy lowered his bilirubin levels. Ultimately, his tiny, 3-pound body would have to learn to do all this on its own.
We cried out to God, the God of our ancestors.
During our son’s stay in the NICU, we lived a strange sort of existence. With one son in the hospital, and the other, only 14 months old, at home, we straddled two worlds, struggling to be fully present in both. The emotional and physical exhaustion overtook us, and at night, when our sons were asleep, one 30 minutes away in a hospital, the other in a crib across the hall, I cried into my husband’s shoulders and wondered how we would endure. How would anyone?
God heard our voice. God saw our persecution, our toil, and our oppression.
When doubts crept in and I wondered what I might have done differently, I recalled my obstetrician say, “There is nothing you did or didn’t do that caused this to happen,” and I remember to breathe. We put our trust in the doctors, in ourselves, in our community, and in God.
Like countless NICU parents before us, and the many since, we did what we needed to help our son grow. I heard the voice of God in the beeps and blips of the machines that surrounded us. I saw Him in the medicine our son was injected with. I tasted Hashem in the food our friends and family prepared, and I felt Him in the touch of my son’s body against my chest.
God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, signs, and wonders.
Finally, just a few days before spring and eight weeks after he entered the world, our son passed the car seat test, the last remaining obstacle before discharge. On the eve of Passover, hours before sundown and the start of the first seder, Asher came home. And as we read aloud the words of the Haggadah and sang the songs of joy and freedom, they had taken on a new meaning: That very day, we had lived through our own Exodus. For the first time, all four of us were in the same room, the same home, together.
Just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea and emerged on the other side a new nation, after leaving the NICU behind and entering our home, we emerged a new family.
Today, our 5-year-old son is sweet and defiant, hilarious and mischievous, independent and demanding. And at the seder table this year, we will sing a new song in his honor.
Talia Liben Yarmush lives in Linden, N.J., with her husband and their two sons. More of her work is available at TaliaYarmush.com. This essay first appeared in our sister publication, New Jersey Jewish News.