An Israeli mother who lost a son in each of two Israeli military campaigns shared her story with students at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, on Sept. 16.
Offering messages about bravery, patriotism, and faith, Miriam Peretz described how she overcame the grief of losing two soldier sons and her husband in the space of seven years, and how she helps other families who have lost sons.
“For what my children have fallen?” she asked in imperfect but impassioned English. “So I can stand here today and speak with you. That you continue to know you have a home in Israel. Someone must do this work. Before my sons it was the Maccabim. After the Holocaust many children your age came to Israel and fought for you and me. Now this is the time of my sons.”
Peretz lost her son Uriel, the eldest of six, while he was fighting with the IDF Golani Brigade in Lebanon in 1998. Her husband died six years later of, as she put it, a broken heart. Four and a half years ago, her son Eliraz died fighting, also with the Golani Brigade, this time in Gaza.
She was in the area on a speaking tour following the partial translation of her 2011 autobiography, Shirat Miriam (The Song of Miriam). The translation is rough; it was done to promote the Olamot Center in Eli, where Eliraz lived, as much as to promote the book. Peretz’s speaking tour includes appeals for support for Olamot as well as for a full (and, presumably, more professional) translation of the book into English. Just a week earlier, Howard Jonas of the Newark-based IDT corporation hosted Peretz in his hometown of Riverdale and expressed interest in underwriting the translation, it was announced at RKYHS.
In her Kushner talk, Peretz offered her own version of how she puts one foot in front of the other to go on living after suffering her losses — describing, for example, her pain and ambivalence in cooking one of Eliraz’s favorite dishes, meatballs.
After Eliraz was killed, his wife invited her mother-in-law to come to her home for Shabbat and bring the meatballs. “How can I continue to cook these meatballs?” Peretz said she asked herself. “How could I cook these meatballs for my grandson, when my son cannot eat them?”
After many tears and much soul-searching, she managed to make the meatballs, to the delight of her grandson. “In this moment, I understand the meaning of bravery,” she recalled. “It is how to continue to live. To die is simple. Bravery is how you continue to cook the things your children love. It’s how you do for your grandchildren all the things you did for your sons.”
Peretz was born in Morocco to parents who could neither read nor write, she said. “They knew one word in Hebrew: ‘Jerusalem.’”
The family immigrated to Israel when she was a young girl and settled in Be’er Sheva. “Everyone would ask my father, ‘Where do you live?’ He would say, ‘Jerusalem.’ We would say, ‘But you live in Be’er Sheva!’
“But Jerusalem is not just a place. It’s our freedom. It’s our dream. It the dreams of our grandfathers and grandmothers. Jerusalem is the root of am Yisrael. So many children have fallen for this Jerusalem.”
Peretz said that as a religious woman, she asks God every day, “Why me? Why my children? Why my husband? Why come to my house three times?”
Nonetheless, she said, “I want to tell you that my strength comes from one source: Hakadosh Baruch Hu,” the Holy One, blessed be He.
And she has carved out an answer for herself. “It is a mitzva, a mission to continue to defend the country,” she said. “It’s not normal for parents to bury their children. But in Israel, it’s normal. Who will fight for us? Who will die for the dream of my father?”
Following her talk, head of school Rabbi Eli Rubin said, “It will take me a while to process Miriam’s words. But I will be thinking of her on Rosh Hashana when we say, ‘Hineini.’”
“Hineini” — “Here I am” — was Abraham’s response to God, who was about to ask him to sacrifice his son Isaac. The passage is read on Rosh Hashana.
Said Rubin: “I will ask myself, ‘Am I here? Am I available? Am I responsible? Am I fulfilling my mission in life?’”
The talk also had an impact on the students. Ameerah Ali, 14, a ninth-grader from West Orange, called Peretz’s talk “sad,” and added, “I don’t know what I’d do in her position. I think her point was that when bad things happen we have to try to live life and still believe in Hashem.”