Poem of the Week

The Passover Story as a Nursery Rhyme, With a Jewish National Message

An early 20th century poem by Kadish Yehuda Silman, a Hebrew-language pioneer, tells the story of Moses in the ark.

A child’s Passover in Israel.
Amnon Sharur

Moses in the Ark

Kadish Yehuda Silman

Silent floats a little ark
On the sparkling Nile.
In the ark is baby Moses,
A lovely, tender child.

And above the bright blue shimmers
And down below, the Nile
As the sun shines in the heavens
Streaming lots of light.

Hush, oh hush, you naughty ripples
Little Moses glides
He won’t drown. Yes he’ll live,
He’ll live, this little child.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden  

We tell the story of Passover to children according to their abilities to comprehend it: Israeli pre-kindergarteners might be called upon at the seder table to stand on a chair, perform this song and be praised, like their slightly older siblings or cousins who recite the more difficult traditional Four Questions.

The lyric (ca. 1916) was part of a concerted ideological and practical effort in the Land of Israel (as well as in some enlightened parts of the diaspora) in the late 19th and early 20th century to create a modern Hebrew children’s culture. In simple language, the first stanza depicts baby Moses floating down the Nile in the basket. The scene, redacted for small children, leaves out the scary background of Pharaoh’s decree to drown all male Jewish newborns (Exodus 1:22), the bit in the story that encourages insubordination – the baby’s sister Miriam and his mother Yocheved’s plot to disobey the decree, and the good gentile woman, Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:1-10). 

The second stanza – which is omitted from most recorded renderings of “Moses in the Ark” – emphasizes the bright sunlight of the Middle East that along with the intense heat here was so astonishing to the newcomers from cloudy Eastern European climes. Nowadays we fight the climate in this part of the world with sunscreen and an app for air conditioners.

The third stanza begins with an adult voice “hushing” and chastising the “naughty” ripples – concepts all children experience, though not with pleasure. The final couplet articulates the Hebrew language enthusiasts’ national commitment, even before the Holocaust – like baby Moses, the Jewish people will indeed survive.

Kadish Yehuda Silman, top row, second from right, and the other members of the First Hebrew Language Committee.
Wikipedia

Poet and pedagogue Kadish Yehuda Silman taught Hebrew and Bible at the Rehavia Hebrew Gymnasium in Jerusalem. According to one of his students, he looked like a “diminutive spherical object, with a protruding pot belly, and a short head devoid of all hair.” He believed that learning should be fun and celebrated the completion of the study of a book of the Bible with nuts and watermelon for all. 

Silman was a member of the First Hebrew Language Committee – the precursor of the Hebrew Language Academy – which zealously fought for the use of Hebrew as the language of instruction and daily life in the Land of Israel. Like other members of the committee, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, David Yellin and Joseph Klausner, Silman has a street named after him in Jerusalem. It is in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood, which Silman and his wife helped found in 1922.

*Bonus: To the melody of a Yiddish folksong derived from a Cossack lullaby, Ariela’s kindergarteners sing “Moses in the Ark.”