Books: Devastating losses

Miriam Peretz reflects on losing two sons to war, and finding the strength to continue

A loss that thrusts heroism upon you (illustrative) (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A loss that thrusts heroism upon you (illustrative)
Miriam Ohayon Peretz is a symbol of resilience in Israel. Two of her sons, Lieut. Uriel and Maj. Eliraz Peretz, were killed during their service in the Israel Defense Forces. In the 12 years between their deaths, her beloved husband, Eliezer, died prematurely.
That is a lot of grief for one woman – for one family – to bear. Yet Miriam’s Song is, indeed, a song. It’s a song sung to life.
The book is divided into seven parts, beginning with Peretz’s exceedingly humble childhood in Casablanca, Morocco.
Her mother was raised by a widower father.
They lived in a hut on the grounds of a cemetery where Peretz’s grandfather was the caretaker. Peretz herself, the oldest of five children, began her life in a home that measured just two square meters, with an attached narrow room that served as a kitchen. She calls those years “the first 10 beautiful years of my life.”
That gives an indication of the strength of Miriam Peretz.
Her early memories include her family’s aliya and the time they spent in the Hatzerim immigrant camp in Beersheba.
Peretz describes her first encounter with lice and the “holy trinity:” one tablespoon of oil, one tablespoon of vinegar and one tablespoon of kerosene, which was the formula for treating lice in the immigrant camps of 1960s Israel.
Many of her early memories center on her childhood schooling, foreshadowing her eventual career as an educator and school principal. Among the more charming passages are those that describe her courtship with her husband and fellow Moroccan, Eliezer. They met on an Egged bus. So certain was Eliezer of the match that he proposed on their second date.
Having sketched a portrait of her early years, including the birth of Uriel, her first child, the book’s second part is a devotion to his life and death. Peretz is clearly a great admirer of her sons. She is able to share an extraordinary level of detail about their lives and their characters.
On his first day of first grade, Uriel, weighed down by his backpack, struggled to climb onto the minibus. Watching from a distance, Peretz resisted the urge to pick him up. Uriel’s confident words, “Mommy, I can do it!” became a motto.
“Uriel recognized that the step was high and difficult for him to climb, but he knew that he had inner strength, and that he could put that strength to use,” Peretz wrote.
“Over the years, I came to view that step as a symbol. Life presents us with so many steps. I’ve often faced steps I thought I wouldn’t be able to climb. But then I remembered my little boy’s words – ‘Mommy, I can do it!’” Arguably the most painful part of the book is Chapter 10 – “I Knew Uriel Would Die” – in which Peretz describes the many signs she received that Uriel’s death in battle was imminent. On November 25, 1998, Uriel, age 22, was killed in southern Lebanon by remote-controlled explosive devices planted and detonated by Hezbollah.
In Part 3, Peretz describes the aftermath of Uriel’s death, and the subsequent premature death of her husband Eliezer who “devoted his life to commemorating Uriel.”
Officially, the cause of death was cancer, but Peretz maintains: “My husband died of a broken heart.”
The book’s fourth section is devoted to Eliraz, who was killed in Gaza in 2010. Eliraz lived long enough to marry and father four children, the oldest of whom was named in memory of his brother Uriel. As with Uriel, in the Eliraz chapters, Peretz recreates her son’s personality, highlighting his bountiful emotional and spiritual gifts.
Eliraz was already in the IDF when Uriel was killed and Eliraz’s commander announced that he would not be allowed to continue serving in the special forces unit. Upon hearing his commander’s words, “Eliraz stood up from the corner of the room and announced, ‘I’m continuing. I want to keep going. I got to the special forces when Uriel was alive, and I know that if Uriel were still alive, he would want me to continue. This is the path I’ve chosen.’”
Peretz describes the struggle she and Eliezer had signing the document that allowed their second son to continue as a fighter in an elite unit. Eliraz became a career officer and was killed in an exchange of fire in Gaza, on March 26, 2010.
Having lost not one but two sons in war, Peretz rose to the status of a national symbol.
In Part 5, the four surviving children each write about the deaths of their two older brothers and their father as they experienced them. Each articulates what the losses meant at their respective ages.
And each child, one more expressive than the next, describes what it was like to be raised by exceedingly loving parents, in a strong, faithful family unit.
The final two parts of the 400-page book are Peretz’s reflections on the aftermath of her dramatic losses. Woven throughout the book are the texts of eulogies, important letters, speeches, notes and family pictures.
Miriam Peretz didn’t intend to be a public figure. Life and its losses thrust heroism upon her. Throughout the book, she retains the humility of her early childhood.
There is much to learn from her quiet strength and dignity. Perhaps no lesson she transmits is more powerful than the reminder to appreciate the myriad blessings we each have, even when devastating losses knock us around.