Like any Jewish mother worth her salt, I’ve been bursting with pride over my son’s accomplishments ever since he was born seven months ago. He sits! He crawls! He pulls himself up to stand! But, alas, there is one sphere where he has been making no progress, and that is in the sleep department. Not only does he not sleep through the night, he wakes every hour or two, his face wet with tears, the pitch of his cries ever rising. And so, like many exhausted parents, we finally decided to sleep-train him. But unlike many other exhausted parents, our decision happened to coincide with the outbreak of war between Israel and Gaza.
At night, while my son cries it out, my husband and I sit glued to the Internet, refreshing the news over and over. We are following the advice of a highly recommended book on sleep, but we cannot follow it exactly because every few days—during naptime and sleeptime—I have had to pick my son up and carry him into the stairwell of our apartment building while rockets rain down on Jerusalem. I know it would be worse if we lived in Tel Aviv or in Sderot, and, of course, it would be worse in Gaza. Suddenly, rather than cry, my son is simply quiet, as though he knows that there must be an important reason for me to wake him on purpose. But when I put him back down, the screaming starts all over again.
The pictures of dead Gazan children make me sick. So do the pictures of dead Israeli teenagers. I am angry at Hamas for investing their resources in underground tunnels from which to attack Israelis. I am angry at Israel for continuing to build settlements without any regard for their impact on the possibility of peace. And round and round we go.
Does it have to be this way? How can it be otherwise? It is hard to make peace a reality when we can’t even envision what it would look like. And yet, since my son was born last year, I have caught glimpses of what it might look like, beginning with his birth.
Our son was born in the middle of a snowstorm. Not just any snowstorm, but the worst snowstorm in Jerusalem’s history, cutting off power lines, stranding drivers, and trapping my husband, our newborn, and me in the hospital for nearly a week. In our lighter moments, we joked that our new son’s spiritual powers were such that his arrival brought the holiest city in the world to a standstill. In our darker moments, we felt like killing each other.
As any freshly minted parent knows, the birth of a first child is a blessed event—filling the heart with crazy joy, gratitude, and a love you never knew possible. It also makes you feel just plain crazy. For us, this was compounded by the fact that we had no idea when we’d be able to leave the hospital, given that the single, winding road that leads to it had been closed for days and that, in the meantime, we were sharing a tiny cubicle cordoned off by a curtain in a shared room.
The nurses—Arab and Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian—sat around the nurses’ station, drinking Styrofoam cups of coffee, taking turns impressing each other with how they had managed to get to work. “I walked for three hours in the snow, then slid down the rest of the way on my tuchus,” a Jewish woman bragged. “My cousin and I hiked here together in our sneakers,” a Muslim woman added. “Who owns snow boots in Jerusalem?” Everyone laughed.
At the hospital, I requested that the nurses place a “breastfeeding only” sticker on our son’s bassinet in the nursery. When he awoke hungry in the middle of the night, a nurse would come to get me. At 1, 3, and 5 a.m., I sat with the other new mothers—the thin blonde woman in her early forties with the sensible haircut and frameless glasses; the large woman with the snood and energetic Brooklyn accent, whose baby I guessed to be her eighth; the woman with the sweet face and heavy eyeliner in a hijab; the hippie girl in her long dark braid and Crocs.
We were a rotating cast of characters, each invisible to the other, as we met in the nursery bleary-eyed and exhausted, cooing and cuddling our babies. It was obvious we were all different, but it was equally obvious we were all the same, eager to love these tiny new creatures in our arms.
Now that the blaring Middle Eastern sun has made the snow a distant memory, I take my baby for long walks in the late afternoons, stopping to sit on park benches to feed him. One of our favorite places to sit is in the front of the Lion Fountain, at the edge of the Hinnom Valley, across the street from the Scottish Church, down the hill from the Montefiore Windmill. In the summer, water spouts from the mouths of the lions, filling a shallow pool with cool water. Although the park is in West Jerusalem, it is filled on any given afternoon with Jewish and Arab children, sandals and shirts removed, splashing and screaming in Arabic, Hebrew, English, and French. Jewish and Arab women in headcoverings can be seen picnicking under the olive trees nearby. Every now and then they glance over to make sure their kids are OK, but there’s no nervousness, no animosity from either side—just regular families looking for relief from the heat.
Whenever I see my friend Natalie, we say we should make a time to get together for a playdate with our babies. Her son, Emmanuel, is 1-and-a-half. My son, Rafael, is barely 1. Natalie is a Christian-Palestinian and I am a Jewish Israeli, but the reason we don’t follow-up on our good intentions has nothing to do with ethnicity or religion. It’s because we are both working mothers and our so-called free time is minimal. And in this, too, there is the ache of normalcy.
I know I am not the first mother in history to gaze down at her child’s innocent face and pray that by the time he grows up, there will be no more war. I receive an email forwarded from a friend of a friend who runs an Israeli-Palestinian elementary school about a peace walk taking place on the old Jerusalem train tracks. I wish I could go, but the walk begins at 8.30 p.m., my son’s so-called bedtime.
And so, instead of marching for peace, it’s another night in front of my computer, compulsively checking the news. What can I do? There is nothing I can do. And so I write a poem.
Our soldiers are moving deeper into Gaza this very night
but my son must learn to sleep
he’s not a soldier, he’s a baby
He learned quickly
how to sit and crawl and pull himself up by his own strength
but still he doesn’t know how to comfort himself, how to soothe
his aloneness and exhaustion
his eyes are red-rimmed
he cries into the night
which doesn’t answer him
while my husband and I sit on our hands and watch the clock and remind each other
we are doing the right thing
are we doing the right thing?
The night deepens
the wind blows through the palm tree outside our window
there are rockets in the distance
but no siren yet
the dead mount in the ground offensive but the cry
you hear is not theirs—
it’s the sound of my son
Related: Why I Waited to Have Children