By Deborah Fineblum/JNS.org
Before 1998, Miriam Peretz’s life was rather ordinary. She and her husband were living in the same house in the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Ze’ev where they’d been for many years. Her work as principal of a local elementary school kept her busy. Their six kids were coming and going as dictated by their school schedules and army duty.
That was until the bottom fell out of Peretz’s life at the moment every Israeli parent fears: the knock on the door announcing their 21-year-old son, Uriel, had been killed in action in Lebanon.
Nearly 12 years later, the knock came again, this time with the terrible news that their younger son Eliraz, 32, a major in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Golani Brigade and a father of four, had been killed in a Hamas ambush near the Gaza border. His death came more than a decade after eulogizing his big brother. “Sometimes we pay a price for doing the right thing,” Eliraz had said at the time. “The price of life.”
Whatever thin thread of normalcy Miriam Peretz had clung to was gone. Her husband Eliezer had also died, at age 56, between the deaths of their two sons. For this bereaved mother, the only way to cope with her pain was to leave the education of young children behind and begin teaching soldiers, bereaved families, parents of incoming IDF soldiers, and Jews around the world (an estimated 1,000 people now hear her speak during a typical month) about what was important enough for her sons to give their lives to defend.
“I know my sons did not die in vain,” Peretz told JNS.org. “My children fell so other children can live in peace, so we Jews can give a huge light to the world. They viewed military service as a mitzvah and a privilege, not an obligation.”
In fact, despite the fact that Israeli law excuses younger siblings of fallen soldiers from army service, Eliraz, followed by Peretz’s two youngest sons and a daughter, also insisted on joining the IDF. The two younger sons are still serving in reserve combat units.
For her resilience and tireless outpouring of love for the land and people of Israel, Peretz (who turns 62 this Passover) has won the prestigious Menachem Begin Prize, has been hugged by President Barack Obama, and has been toasted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said, “The entire nation draws strength from her courage.” In 2014, Peretz was given the national honor of lighting the Israeli Independence Day torch.
“My sons don’t fight only for Israel but for the Jewish people everywhere,” Peretz told this reporter by phone as the car she was riding in pulled away from a TV station in New Jersey. During a visit to the U.S. this month, Peretz spent much of her time being shuttled from one such interview to another, from one auditorium and classroom to another, and speaking to students, government officials, and clergy of different faiths.
At each stop in a packed itinerary, Peretz drove home the message she conveyed to JNS.org, “From where did my sons draw their strength and bravery? From the complete and pure faith in three principles that were their guiding light: the Torah of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Land of Israel, their faith in our right to live a life of freedom in our land.”
But Peretz is too honest to whitewash her pain, having described the terrible choice she must make each year on Israel’s Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron), when families visit their fallen children’s graves at Mt. Herzl Cemetery.
“The dilemma I face on this day is inhuman,” she said. “During the ceremony, by which grave do I stand?”
Rabbi Avi Berman, who heads up the Orthodox Union’s Jerusalem center, is an admirer of Peretz as well as her neighbor and friend. “It’s incredibly important that Miriam speaks at army bases each week,” he said. “At the end of the day, we could have the best weapons and intelligence, but if our soldiers are not clear about who and what they’re fighting for, we’ve lost out on the one source of our power. In order to deal with such horrific losses and come out strong, you really need to be someone like Miriam who is able to see the goodness of God in everything.”
For her part, Peretz refuses to be silenced by her losses.
“That’s what the enemy wants, but that’s not me,” she said. “Hamas and Hezbollah can kill the bodies of my sons, but they cannot kill the soul of Am Yisroel, the children of Israel. It’s not normal for a mother to bury children and I could cry everyday, but instead I am determined to live and to speak of hope and the moment of crisis we can grow from, and about our responsibility for our land.”
The entire Peretz family is infused with that responsibility, said Yirmi Stavisky, who was Eliraz’s teacher in high school. “They (the Peretz family) represent the best of Israel,” he said. “Miriam was born in Morocco to parents who made aliyah in the ’50s, poor and not able to read or write. Their daughter rose to the level of principal of a large school, raising a family deeply committed to the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people.”
Stavisky recalled Peretz signing the documentation required for Eliraz to join the army.
“Since the law says a family only needs to pay this terrible price of losing a child once, when he insisted, a parent had to sign to let him serve….It’s their family mission that you have to protect the Jewish people with your own life. Some people are religious and others are Zionists. For them, the two are one and the same,” said Stavisky.
And now this ima shel kol hayeladim—a “mother of all the boys,” as the soldiers call her—is protecting the Jewish people in her own way. As her daughter, Hadas, writes in her chapter of Miriam’s book, “With the endless talks she gives, at a frequency that sometimes seems so extreme to me that I worry it might ruin her health, she is shaping the next generation of Israel’s youth.” Each surviving Peretz child has a chapter in the book about their own experiences of loss and love.
Peretz said it’s the soldiers she speaks with who give her the greatest satisfaction.
“Honestly, I prefer being with them than wearing the crown of celebrity,” she said. “I bless them that they should return peacefully to their homes, but that no matter how hard the road ahead and how long it takes, they can’t give up hope and faith in this nation, this people, and this Torah that keep us strong.”
“Here in America,” added Peretz, “I’ve met so many who dream of Israel, who send their children to serve in Israel as lone soldiers, who were part of the building of Israel and are with us still. To them I say…next year in Jerusalem! And when they come I will be there. I will be there to welcome them.”
The tragic circumstances that thrust this grandmother and elementary school principal into the role of cheerleader for a violence-weary nation are detailed in her book, “Miriam’s Song: The Story of Miriam Peretz.” The Israeli bestseller, which in February 2016 was released in the U.S. in English, is a first-person account of her journey as told to author Smadar Shir.