Choosing Life: Book Review and Conversation with Miriam Peretz



Miriam’s Song: The Story of Miriam Peretz

By Smadar Shir; Translated by Jessica Setbon

Devorah Talia Gordon

One might assume Miriam’s Song: The Story of Miriam Peretz, written by acclaimed author Smadar Shir and recently released in English, would be almost impossible to read. The Israeli bestseller tells the life story of Miriam Peretz who – within the span of 12 years – lost two sons and was widowed. Despite such tragedy, Miriam Peretz is “unwilling to become a symbol of grief,” but has instead become a national symbol of resilience. It is this resilience that makes her book and life a story of hope.

In conversation with Miriam, I asked her why she decided to have this book written about her life. Her timely answer was as follows: “Eliraz was killed on Shabbat haGadol, just a few days before Pesach. On Pesach we have the big mitzvah of higgadeta l’vincha. You must tell your children…I understood that Eliraz can’t tell his children, but as a grandmother I must tell them where we come from. I didn’t think it would become famous. But people tell me it gives them courage.”

To understand Miriam’s journey, her memoir goes into great detail, beginning with her childhood in Casablanca and immigration to Israel. Her family was impoverished, but Miriam remained optimistic; she enjoyed visiting her friends’ “dream houses” (with real washing machines and private bathrooms), but was satisfied to return to her family’s simple hut. “Though my mother couldn’t read, she stood by the mezuzah, prayed without a prayer book. She loved G-d…and had emunah peshutah. I saw my parents didn’t ask questions about G-d, they thanked G-d for all they had. This is the family I grew up in….I looked for the good you can see in each moment.”

Such idealism served Miriam well; she earned a university degree and became an educator, teaching Judaic studies to secular children, and eventually rose to school principal. Her love of the Land of Israel was shared by her husband, Eliezer, and the two instilled in their children that “to be a fighter is a privilege, and honor, and a mitzvah.” This value motivated her first son Uriel so much so that he dreamed of becoming the first Moroccan chief of staff.

But in 1998, First Lieutenant Uriel Peretz of the Golani Special Forces Unit was killed by Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

In response to her first loss, Miriam recalled, “After the shiva, I thought, ‘How can I get up?’ There are two ways. One, is to be in my home, to cry, sleep, and think G-d isn’t good, the government is not good. This is one way.” But Miriam’s youngest child, Bat-El, was eight years old, and she wanted to go to school that day. She asked her mother to make her a sandwich. This small decision was a pivotal moment for Miriam. “In this minute I understood I must choose what [kind of] life I want. I want to continue to make sandwiches…you can’t imagine how hard it was to make this simple sandwich.”

Seven years later, Miriam’s husband Eliezer died at the young age of 56. Miriam explains that although Eliezer was physically ill, her husband never accepted Uriel’s death, and “died of a broken heart.”

Eliraz, her second son, had always dreamed of being in combat. He was a born leader who “radiated vitality.” Miriam writes, “I wanted to believe that death would never touch him.” But on March 26, 2010, Major Eliraz Peretz, a husband and father of four, was killed by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

Once again, Miriam found the strength to continue to “make sandwiches.” Miriam said, “I understood what Shlomit [her daughter-in-law] will feel. It was difficult that my husband wasn’t with me, now I was alone. But I have grandchildren, I have something to live for. I have my daughter-in-law…I thought, ‘If she sees me continue, then she will continue.’”

Pictures of Eliraz and Shlomit with their four young children, as well as Uriel, Eliezer, and the entire Peretz family, draw the reader even more deeply into “Miriam’s Song.” Especially heart-wrenching are later pictures, starkly missing the two young men and their father. The book closes with personal essays by Uriel and Eliraz’s four siblings, and an essay by Shlomit.

Miriam with (L-R) Avichai, Elyasaf and Eliraz

Today, Miriam has chosen to live a life of purpose, both for her immediate family, and for klal Yisrael. She travels almost daily to IDF bases all over Israel to encourage soldiers, as well as traveling abroad. Known as “the mother of the boys,” she visits bereaved families to give them chizuk. And although it is she who strengthens and encourages the soldiers and families, she said, “I strengthen them and they strengthen me….And I tell them, you choose every day, which kind of life you want to live, from our moments of crisis and darkness we can grow.”

The amount of information in this book is astounding, including copies of handwritten notes by Eliraz, a chapter on the life and death of Miriam’s brother with Down’s syndrome, and myriad details of Miriam and her family. Although interesting, some of the chapters could have been edited or taken out altogether, as they detracted from the main story of the lives and deaths of Miriam’s sons, and her journey of growth and emunah.

Miriam Peretz’s story runs parallel to that of Miriam HaNaviah, but it differs in once essential way: Miriam HaNeviah sang her song at the miraculous splitting of the sea. “My song doesn’t come from a miracle,” Miriam said. “When I go [the two meters] from one grave to the other, I am drowning in the pain. It’s easy to love G-d when you have miracles, but not when you have suffering.”

Yet Miriam Peretz keeps singing her glorious song of faith, and anyone who reads her story will be equally inspired to pick up her tambourine and join in the song.