This is not an easy time of the year for Miriam Peretz. And when we speak of the time of year, we’re talking from Pesach through Yom Haatzmaut. Miriam Peretz, you see, lost not one soldier son, but two. And along the way she lost a husband as well, collateral damage if you like. He died of a broken heart after their firstborn, Uriel, was killed in Lebanon.
The entire country is in awe of Miriam Peretz, which she doesn’t quite get: she lost two sons. It doesn’t make her better or different than anyone else. So she’ll tell you. But you’d know better if you got the chance to see her, hear her, or read her book, Miriam’s Song, which has just been translated into English.
I kind of get her. It’s like people being in awe of me because I have 12 children. Which is just biology and mazal, luck, not some kind of superpower. Having 12 children doesn’t make me any kind of goddess, or even a good mother. By the same token, losing two children doesn’t mean one is a strong person.
But you know what DOES make Miriam Peretz a strong person? The fact that she gets out of bed every day. Not only that, but she looks good. She speaks from her heart to soldiers, organizations, and groups and she finds the strength to do this every single day.
I met Miriam Peretz a few years ago at a One Family event. Cheryl Mandel, another bereaved army mom, was with me. She said, “I can get you into the VIP tent,” and that’s how I found myself rubbing elbows with Miriam Peretz. I was noshing on the much better canapés than what the plebes were being served outside, and I looked to my side and there was Miriam with her red curls. We had a short conversation about the food. She said, “I’m staying away from the liver. My late husband, of blessed memory, always told me to be very careful about liver.”
It was such a mundane conversation we were having and yet, I knew her story.
Everyone knows her story. Everyone in Israel. Everyone admires her, but no one wants to be her.
And yet, you listen to her, feel her strength of character and you can’t help but think, “This is why it happened to her. No one else could have borne the pain.”
Which is an awful thought when it comes right down to it. Lord save me from being a strong woman. You know? I think every woman with a soldier son can relate to what I’m saying, here.
Anyway, I got lucky, because I was among the 12 journalists invited to an intimate (and delicious!) dinner with Miriam Peretz. She spoke to us this evening as we dined, and answered questions to our hearts’ content. It was an honor and a privilege to be in her presence. I really feel Miriam Peretz is someone special, a heroine, her protestations aside.
Miriam described the goings on in her home at this time of year, specifically on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), which is back to back with Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day). All the friends of her children converge on her home on Yom HaZikaron. We’re not talking about 30 or even 50 people. We’re talking some 500 guests. That’s a lot of people.
No one talks about Miriam’s sons, Uriel and Eliraz, HY”D. These young people talk about their spouses, their children, their lives. While Miriam is smiling and listening and serving food, she is thinking of her sons, one of whom never got the chance to marry and have children, the other who left four young orphans who will not remember their father and a young wife, now all alone. When finally, the guests leave and she is alone in the now quiet home she inhabits, Miriam goes up to her bedroom, shuts the door and cries all night. Cries her heart out with yearning and missing her boys. Wanting to hear them say, “Eema,” the Hebrew word for “mother” just one more time. But the only sound in the room is the sound of her own voice weeping.
In the morning, she goes to Mount Herzl, to the military cemetery, but this is not her time to mourn, not for her. This is the day that everyone in the country mourns, it doesn’t feel specific to her sons. So she waits. And returns to Mount Herzl the following morning. The morning of Yom HaAtzmaut.
This is when she cleans away all the flowers that have been left there for her two boys, Uriel and Eliraz, the day before, and when all is tidy and the cemetery quiet, when she has this holy site—holy to her—all to herself, she speaks to them, to her boys. “Do I have your permission to be happy with all Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, on this day?”
Then and only then does she feel able to make the transition, the crazy schizophrenic transition from grief to joy that this small sliver of a country experiences every year in these back to back celebratory extremes, from Memorial Day to Independence Day, from crying for the dead to dance, barbecues, firecrackers, and song.
Like I said, the mourning begins way before, already from Passover. Miriam’s second son Eliraz was killed just two days before the holiday. Every year she hears about the miracle of the splitting of the sea, but as she put it, “For us there is no miracle.”
She tells us that the question she is asked to answer over and over again is how she can continue to live. Miriam tells them, “I’m a redhead! I hear music? I dance!”
Then, more serious, she tells us that the only reason she is still alive is because of her faith in God. She says, “I dance with God every day. Sometimes he throws me to the floor. Sometimes he hugs me. But I never let go. I hold this God close to me and I ask: ‘Why my children? My children whom I raised in an atmosphere of mitzvot (commandments) and Torah?'”
But then she thinks: It was their turn. Just as it was the turn of those who survived the Holocaust only to die in Israel’s War of Independence. It was their turn.
Miriam speaks to us then about being honored with lighting a torch at a national Independence Day celebration. Those who receive this honor declare that they are lighting the torch for the glory of the State of Israel. Miriam says that this glory is something she, of all people, understands, deeply, intimately, and we understand that glory may be a concept that only a few exceptional people can touch. (Thank God)
Miriam’s voice gathers strength as she declares, “They killed blood, not spirit. They succeeded only in killing their bodies, but never will they extinguish the soul of this nation!”
Other reasons to live: “At the Passover seder we say, ‘V’higadata l’vincha,’ ‘And you shall tell your sons.’ Fathers are commanded to tell their sons the Passover story, but Eliraz’s sons have no father to tell them this story. I need to live because they need someone to tell them about their heritage, their story.”
Also, Miriam has come to realize something important: “Life is bigger and stronger than death.
“It’s a matter of choice—it’s a big miracle that I continue to speak and give strength to others, to the living. In every moment of darkness, you see, there are little lights, sparks. I look for those lights in the darkness.”
Besides, says Miriam, “We are Sayeret Golani (Golani Reconnaisance Unit) and our motto is ‘We never go back, only forward!'”
Miriam opens the floor for questions. I begin, “With Uriel, you knew he was going to die,” this having been a central theme in her book, “but with Eliraz, you didn’t know. Why do you think that is?”
Miriam tells me this is a good question and explains, “With Eliraz, I didn’t believe he would die, because first of all, God already took Uriel—it was enough.
“I made a mistake. I thought God wouldn’t take two sons. I thought Eliraz was protected. Especially since my husband was already up there with Uriel. I yelled at my husband, ‘Eliezer, what are you doing up there? Why didn’t you protect Eliraz?’
“And then I had a moment. A great moment, important. I realized I am nothing, ‘efess‘ (‘zero’). I have no power. I control nothing. Everything, but everything is in God’s hands. I am in God’s hands. And I loved God more and more.
“Sometimes I yell at God. ‘Don’t touch my children!’ Two of my children are still in the army (Elyasaf and Avichai). But in the end, comfort comes only from God; nothing is certain; we are all in His hands.”
I had another question for Miriam. Siblings of soldiers killed in battle cannot serve unless their parents sign their permission. “How did you manage to sign for your children after Uriel, and more so, after Eliraz was killed?”
Most of her answer was in her book, which I had already read. But one thing she said at this intimate dinner was somehow more meaningful in Hebrew. Eliraz told Miriam that he can live with a mission, that is, go to the army and fight for his country, or be “met b’chayav” which loosely means “dead while alive.” He would be dead inside, dead spiritually, and that’s no life. Because fighting for Israel is not like fighting for any other country. It’s a spiritual mission, a quest undertaken for your nation on God’s behalf.
In signing for her five remaining children, now just four with Eliraz gone, Miriam was affirming to God what she was just beginning to understand: Life is not in our hands.
Elyasaf took time to travel as many Israeli youth do, after Eliraz died. When he did, Miriam had the sense that he was running away, trying to escape all that death. She told him, “You are like Jonah. You can run to the ends of the earth, to Nepal and India, but you cannot escape God. You will see God’s face in every child’s face in India. You will see His face in every flower in Nepal.”
After dinner, we heard Gabi Ashkenazi speak. He was Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2007 to 2011 and his army “home” is Golani. Each time Miriam lost a son, he was there at their funerals, at the shiva house. He has kept in touch with Miriam. They share history. And even their backgrounds are similar.
Both come from the periphery and worked hard to climb out of poverty. Despite his surname, Ashkenazi, like Miriam, is of Mizrachi extraction. Their backgrounds are “not exactly the Mayflower,” as he put it, and he wants us to know that what Miriam does every single day of her life, speaking to mothers and soldiers and all sorts of people about her life, is “the highest expression of Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel.”
Not one among those of us who heard her speak would disagree.
Read her book. It’s amazing. It’s inspiring. You will feel you are in the presence of greatness on every page. And I promise you won’t be able to put it down.
Title: Miriam’s Song: The Story of Miriam Peretz
Publisher: Gefen Publishing
Author: Smadar Shir Publication date: March 1,2016
ISBN: 9789652298751 Hardcover $34.95 ISBN: 9789652298355 Paperback $29.95