Emerging strong, after unimaginable loss

Educator and lecturer Miriam Peretz lost two sons fighting in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Last Independence Day she was one of a few selected to light a torch on Mount Herzl.

Maj. Eliraz Peretz, the deputy commander of the Golani Brigade’s 12th Battalion, was killed in March 2010, during combat with Palestinian terrorists in the southern Gaza Strip, near Khan Yunis. (photo credit: COURTESY MIRIAM PERETZ)
Maj. Eliraz Peretz, the deputy commander of the Golani Brigade’s 12th Battalion, was killed in March 2010, during combat with Palestinian terrorists in the southern Gaza Strip, near Khan Yunis.
‘You’ve got to meet Miriam Peretz,” said Racheli, a training group commander in the IDF.
“There isn’t a soldier in the IDF who doesn’t know her story or hasn’t heard her speak. Everyone wants to meet her.”
That sounded promising, but then she added, “You’ll be lucky if she meets with you. She’s very busy.”
Peretz, an educator, is a widow who lost two sons, Uriel and Eliraz, while they were serving in the military. On November 25, 1998, her eldest son, 22-year-old Lt. Uriel Peretz, commander of the reconnaissance platoon of the Golani Brigade’s 51st Battalion, was killed in an ambush in southern Lebanon. On March 26, 2010, her second son, Maj. Eliraz Peretz, was killed in an encounter with a group of terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
Above all, Peretz is a mother who has faced horrible things but consciously chooses to keep on living. Since her sons were killed, she has dedicated her life to giving strength to bereaved families, whom she accompanies in their first moments of mourning. The rest of the time, she lectures young people and soldiers on leadership and love for the Land of Israel. For many, she embodies the ideal Israeli. So it was only natural for her to be chosen this year to participate in the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl on the eve of Independence Day. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience or, for that matter, among those watching from home, when it was her turn to light a torch.
Two hours of wine therapy with Peretz went by at untold speed. The experience is wrenching.
One can’t help but be impressed by her strength when she speaks about bereavement and coming back to life. She is entertaining and exciting, telling her story with rare charisma, and at the end of the meeting we were left open-mouthed, amazed at the personality we had had the privilege to host. A Zionist. A woman with values. An educator. A conversationalist.
In this particular case, those are not mere clichés: This is the real thing.
And Racheli was right, Miriam’s phone doesn’t stop ringing the entire meeting. She really is one of the most sought-after speakers both within the army and elsewhere. The General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, the Givati Brigade, the Golani Brigade, the Prime Minister’s Office. The list goes on. They call her one after the other, reverentially asking her to come speak, and she always does her best to oblige, never turning away a young officer or a company’s human resources specialist.
Mission: Discover the secret of Miriam Peretz’s strength Modus operandi: Wine from Recanati Winery and dinner at Jerusalem’s 1868 restaurant How have you been the past few weeks? When you asked me to come to a restaurant for an interview, I thought it might not be an appropriate time. This country just buried its dead. It brings back all the memories of the wars in which my sons, Uriel and Eliraz, fell. After all, the antithesis of death is food...
I thought of all the newly bereaved families, and I remembered that the most difficult thing of all for them is to eat the dishes that their children loved most.
When Uriel, my first, fell, what was hardest for me was to get up from mourning and prepare a sandwich for my daughter, who was in third grade. When you bury your son whom you love so much, you want just one thing: To die, to take his place. But now I suddenly have to deal with food, which for me is a symbol of life, of happiness. On the other hand, I believe that the fact we are sitting here at this difficult time has significance. It’s a kind of victory: The victory of life. We’re continuing on.
You just described a very deep abyss. At what point did you manage to raise yourself out of it? When people see me living, going forward, not breaking down, they say, “You’re a hero.” I often use food to illustrate what heroism is.
My son Eliraz loved hamburgers in tomato sauce. On Fridays, when he would come home with his soldiers, I would cook up four kilograms of meat for hamburgers.
The soldiers would sit down around a full platter, at least 10 hamburgers per soldier. Within two minutes, they would empty the platter. A week after he fell, my daughter-in-law Shlomit asked me to spend Shabbat with them in Eli.
It was a difficult request for me, because I knew I would be going to my son’s house but he would no longer be there. The most legitimate request became a challenge for me.
Suddenly, I heard Eliraz’s six-year-old son, Or Hadash, on the other end of the line, whispering to his five-year-old sister, Hallel Miriam, “Oh, great! Grandma will bring hamburgers!” And I thought, “I can’t make the hamburgers Eliraz loved so much. No way. I just can’t make hamburgers when Eliraz won’t have any.”
On Thursday, I sent a neighbor to buy ground meat and I placed it in the refrigerator.
Thursday evening, I sent a different neighbor to grate onions and chop parsley. Let everybody else deal with the hamburgers. I didn’t want anything to do with them. On Friday, I woke up with a fright at four in the morning. I knew the taxi would be there for me at 10 a.m. My grandchildren are waiting for grandma’s hamburgers – but there are no hamburgers.
The sun hadn’t come up yet. I prayed to God in that darkness, and I asked him for one thing: “Please, God, give me the strength to finish the job. I need strength to make hamburgers for my grandchildren.”
I took the bowl with the meat in it and placed it on the counter. For two hours I paced back and forth, looking at the meat and crying. I’m not capable of making the hamburgers that I made up until Eliraz fell. I knew it would be the first time I’d make hamburgers and my son would never have any of them, and I’d always made them just for him. I kept crying a lot, but slowly, slowly, I managed to make the hamburgers.
And with every hamburger I prepared, I’d say to myself: “This is the hamburger that Eliraz ate when he was six months old, when I would cut it up for him into tiny bits.”
The second hamburger, “This is Eliraz at age two, who loved to put the meat in his mouth and suck the sauce out of it.”
And so on, from one burger to the next, I saw parts of my son’s life pass before my eyes. And the final hamburger is the one that my son will never taste. How much pain and suffering I endured making those hamburgers.
When I arrived [at my son’s house], three of Eliraz’s four children ran up to me, and instead of saying, “Grandma, we’re happy to see you,” they asked just one question: “Grandma, did you bring hamburgers?” And at that moment I understood that hamburgers are life, and continuing to make and eat the foods your son loved despite the knowledge that he’ll never eat them again is heroism: Overcoming the force that’s pulling you down, toward sadness, toward pain. And look at me now. Four years have gone by since he fell, and today I’m sitting at a restaurant, eating and enjoying myself. Because life is more powerful than death.
You’ve been teaching soldiers and commanders about leadership for many years. How did that come about? I’ve been teaching them for the past 16 years, since Uriel fell in Lebanon. It started when Eliraz was in officer training. They invited a speaker who didn’t show up.
Eliraz called me and asked, “Mom, can you come to speak to the soldiers?” I said, “Speak to the soldiers? About what?” And he asked me to open up a notebook with memories recorded by Uriel’s soldiers, and then I first discovered that they had written about Uriel as a leader.
They wrote that he was first a man, then a leader. I understood that to lead is to guide others with love. You can’t lead people if you don’t love them, if you don’t connect with their hearts. I decided to compose a lecture on leadership and started giving lessons to soldiers and officers in the IDF. For me, it was a way of memorializing Uriel.
Where do you get your strength? My strength is first and foremost from faith that what happened was beyond my control, and faith that my children didn’t die in vain.
They always used to tell me, “Mom, once the Maccabees fought here, when the state was established Holocaust survivors fought here, and now it’s our turn.”
One of the things I told the bereaved families I just visited is that they’ll never again have the happiness that they did before. We’re handicapped.
But we determine how handicapped we are, and that makes all the difference.
I make a choice every day to be grateful for what I have. It’s all a matter of choice.... Some people don’t want to discover their strength. So when does our great strength come out? At times of crisis.
When was the last time you felt emotional? When I visited the families of lone soldiers Sgt. Sean Carmeli and St.- Sgt. Max Steinberg. I promised Max’s mother that after she went back to the US, whenever I visited Uriel and Eliraz’s graves, I would also visit Max and give him a hug from mom. She needed to know that she wouldn’t be leaving her boy alone here. We hugged each other: Two mothers who had lost what was most dear to them.
You meet a lot of people. Would you tell us about a meeting with one of them that you enjoyed? When US President Barack Obama came to Israel, they invited me to dinner at the President’s Residence. As I was eating, Obama came over to me with president Shimon Peres and started talking with me.
A little while later, he asked, “Can I hug you?” I answered, “You can do whatever you want, I’m a widow.”
He cracked up.
Afterward we spoke seriously. I asked him that, when he came to Mount Herzl and put a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl – the visionary of the Jewish state – to remember the terrible price we’ve paid to realize that vision, and to do everything he can so that we can live here, in our home, securely.
What message would you like to come out of this meeting? That’s it’s important to learn how to leave our personal space and think about the other.
When Eliraz, who had children, came back after extended periods in Lebanon and Gaza, he didn’t go to his own home to see his wife and children, but first he went to the home of his neighbor and friend Maj. Roi Klein [who was killed in Lebanon in 2006 after jumping on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers]. He informally adopted Roi’s children. He would take them to the beach, to movies, carry them around on his shoulders on Simhat Torah, and when they had birthdays, he asked me to buy them presents. That is greatness: Thinking of the other.
Here’s another story that amazed me: After Eliraz died, I was approached by an Ethiopian family, a mother and a young man I know called Vanda, who was a soldier under Eliraz’s command. Vanda told me that when Eliraz was killed, his picture was published in the paper. Vanda showed the picture to his mother.
He said, “This is my commander.”
The mother saw the picture and said, “No, I know that man. That’s the painter.”
Vanda didn’t know what she was talking about. With some probing, the story came out. It turned out that seven years before, when Vanda and his commander Eliraz were in Lebanon, they were informed that there had been a fire in Vanda’s house. Vanda put in a request to leave Lebanon so that he could help his family paint the house. At the time they were in the middle of a military operation, so it wasn’t possible to discharge Vanda so he could go home. Another officer told Eliraz what had happened to Vanda’s house. Eliraz and some other officers left Lebanon for a short continuing education program and to visit their families. As soon as Eliraz reached Israel, he called up his father-in-law and the two of them went to Vanda’s house disguised as painters. Eliraz told Vanda’s mother they’d been sent to paint the house. Only seven years later and totally by chance, the mother understood that the painter was actually her son’s commander, and Vanda understood that Eliraz was the one who had painted the house.
Our special country will be stronger when we show mutual responsibility, when we are united not only when times are tough, but in everyday life. That’s what it is for a nation to be strong. No enemy can break that spirit, that love of Israel.
On the eve of Independence Day this year, you lit a torch in a ceremony on Mount Herzl. Tell us about the experience.
When they told me I’d be lighting a torch, I was blown away.
I visited Uriel and Eliraz’s graves and I told them, “They just told me that they want me to light a torch.”
It felt like too much for me.
A day before the ceremony, when we had a rehearsal at Mount Herzl, I broke down. I know that mountain as a place of dead people, of death, but suddenly I see an orchestra and a lot of happiness there. It was a tremendous dissonance for me, because since Uriel died, I haven’t celebrated Independence Day. During the rehearsal, I had a hard time lighting the torch, because while the other torch-lighters saw the audience, I saw what lay beyond the audience: The graves of Israeli soldiers.
But at the ceremony, I suddenly imagined Uriel and Eliraz sitting across from me in the audience, and I heard them saying, “Mom, do it! Do it! You know how!” And suddenly I managed it. I lit the torch and I said, “In honor of those who have fallen and the bereaved families. In honor of the nation of Israel.”
And I had such a deep understanding of those words and their price. It was an uplifting moment. I feel that I lit the torch of life, of choosing life.