‘God, I have paid my share’

This Remembrance Day, on her yearly visit to Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery, Miriam Peretz will have to choose which of her fallen sons to mourn first.

miriam peretz with photos 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
miriam peretz with photos 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As if she could lock out death, Miriam Peretz shut the door in the faces of the military officers who came to notify her that her son, Eliraz, 32, had been killed in Gaza.
“I knew they were going to tell me he was gone,” she said, as she sat in the living room of her Givat Ze’ev home two weeks later and described for The Jerusalem Post the events of that painful Friday on March 26.
She’d reacted differently when her oldest son, Uriel, was killed in Lebanon, 12 years earlier, on his 22nd birthday, she said.
On that late November night, she ran outside, wailing and shouting Uriel’s name loudly enough to wake the slumbering street.
This time she tried to hide from the news, as if by doing so she could keep Eliraz alive.
“I didn’t want them to say anything. I just wanted a few more minutes with Eliraz. I felt he was still alive, and once they notified me of his demise that would be it. Those words would stop his life.
“I didn’t want them to come into the house. I locked the doors and the windows and closed the shutters,” says Miriam.
Then she went over to the photograph of her late husband, Eliezer, hit her fist against the wall next to it, and shouted at him.
“What have you done to Eliraz?”
As she speaks, she bangs her hand on the chair, so that it resounds with every word, like a beating drum.
“You were supposed to fight for him there, while I protected him here,” she yelled at her husband.
“I was angry at Eliezer. Why didn’t you protect him? Why did you want him so badly?” she says, through tears.
As she stood there, someone opened the door for the officers. When she saw them, she ordered them not to speak.
“I will tell you when. Just give me another moment. My son is wounded. Do not tell me anything else. [An officer] kept trying to talk. I kept saying, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I have to talk,’ and I already knew what he would say. I had already been in this scene.”
Even then, the news didn’t register. She thought, “I am not burying two children. Statistically, there has been some mistake.”
She called Eliraz’s wife, Shlomit, and asked her what had happened.
Shlomit answered, “Now, I am like you.”
Only then, said Miriam, did she stop resisting the news.
SHE HAD last seen Eliraz on Purim. They had agreed that on Pessah theentire family would go away together. Most of their phone conversationsafter that were about her daughter Bat El’s upcoming wedding. She hadbecome engaged just weeks before Eliraz’s death, and had alreadyimagined that he would lead her to the huppa.
He told his mother, “She should marry without delay.”
In retrospect, she says, it was as if her body knew of the impending disaster even before she did. The days before his death were filled with signs she dismissed. She delayed cleaning for Pessah, but she chalked it up to fatigue. The night before Eliraz’s death, her youngest son, Eliasaf, dreamed that she sat an unusual kind of shiva, that ended and started again.
On Friday afternoon, just at the time that a Palestinian bullet hit a grenade in her son’s vest, causing it to explode, she hit her head on the kitchen cabinet door.
She placed her hands on her head, sat exactly in the spot where hours later she would hear of her son’s death and screamed in horrible pain.
“What a terrible blow! I called out,” she recalls.
It seemed stronger then anything she had ever experienced. The pain she felt was totally out of proportion to the actual physical impact, she says. Alerted by her cries, her two sons came to see what had happened. To her surprise, when they examined her head they told her that there wasn’t even a scratch.
Then about an hour before Shabbat, a neighbor came into her house and started to talk about her daughter. But it was unusual for her to visit at such a time.
“I was looking at her and I said, ‘Do you want to tell me something about Eliraz?’
“Then at that moment, a few more people came in and said, ‘Eliraz was wounded.’ I accepted it calmly. I said, ‘I want to get dressed,’ because I was in my house clothes. There was still time to go to the hospital before Shabbat. I was somewhat confused in my movements. I put on my shoes. I asked which hospital, but no one seemed to know,” she said.
She dialed several phone numbers, but no one took the call.
“I thought it was strange that no one answered. I decided I would go outside and find someone who knew which hospital he was in. Then I noticed that one of the people was looking outside. Something in this glance toward the door reminded me of Uriel’s death. That is when I pushed everyone aside and closed the door.
“I yelled at everyone here, ‘No one is going outside and no one is coming in,’” says Miriam.
Since then, people have not stopped walking into her home. (Technically the shiva lasted only two days, instead of seven, because of Pessah.) Strangers, friends, relatives, politicians and soldiers have sat in her living room from early morning until late at night to talk with her about Eliraz.
She intertwined his loss with the other two, those of her husband and Uriel.
Many of her visitors had themselves lost family members, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose brother Yonatan was killed in the 1976 Entebbe raid, and David Hatuel, whose wife and four children were killed in a terror attack in 2004.
THE SANDY, curly-haired, freckled mother of six speaks easily about herlife. Her face shifts quickly from tears to a smile depending on theemotions of the story she tells. Often she adds hand gestures toemphasize the drama of the moment.
The principal of a local elementary school, she had wanted only tobring up her four sons and two daughters to love God and their family,to serve their country and lead happy productive lives of significance.
So she is uncomfortable with the mantle of tragedy that she now wears in such a public way.
In advance of Remembrance Day, this past Wednesday, Chief of GeneralStaff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi placed a flag on Maj. Eliraz Peretz’sgrave at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, since he was the last soldierburied there who was killed in action this year.
“Eliraz has turned into a symbol, but he didn’t want to be one and neither do I,” she says.
“I want to be Miriam Peretz, a mother of six happy children, who are doing what they need to do. I sent my children out of a great faith to serve in the military and to do something of significance.
“I don’t want to be the symbol of the bereaved mother or of tragedy. It’s not me. I wanted to stay in my small corner. But sadly, it is not in my control. I am praying that there won’t be any more mothers like me. I want our sons to live for this nation and not die for it,” she says.
It was certainly not the story line she imagined at the age of 11, in 1965, when she and her family fled Morocco in the middle of the night with only one box of possessions. They had never heard of the Jewish Agency, which arranged their move. Nor did they understand what the State of Israel was. But they had lived all their lives dreaming, as their forefathers had before them, of Jerusalem. They imagined that it was akin to the Garden of Eden.
When the family arrived by boat in Haifa, her father knelt and kissed the ground.
They had lived in such poverty in Morocco that the two-room caravan they were given in Beersheba seemed to them luxurious.
“It didn’t matter that the toilet was outside and that some things were broken. We had a house of our own, with a yard,” she says.
Initially, she did not do well on a nationwide educational aptitude test, so she was sent to a vocational school. One of her teachers felt she was misplaced and transferred her back to an academic high school.
From that moment she understood that the teacher plays an important role in determining a child’s fate. In 11th grade she was awarded a certificate of excellence and she was admitted to Ben-Gurion University.
In her fourth year of university, she sat down next to a man 10 years her senior on a bus to Beersheba. She didn’t speak to him, but she made such an impression on him that he noted the name of a school where she taught on one of her notebooks and called her there.
He begged her to meet him just once, and she agreed.
At their second meeting, he said, “I have found what I want. You shall be my wife. Is October 13 good for you?”
“Out of fear that I would not find anyone else, I said yes,” she says.
They moved to Sharm e-Sheikh in Sinai where he worked for the Health Ministry. There in the desert by the sea, their first two boys were born. They were the religious heart of the small religiously pluralistic community. She taught Judaism, Eliezer started a synagogue in a bomb shelter. On Shabbat they opened their home to their neighbors.
They protested the government’s decision to return the area to Egypt after the peace treaty was signed. When their efforts failed in 1982, “We left without any violence and with great pain. It was one of the most wonderful places to live,” she says.
The family relocated in Givat Ze’ev just outside Jerusalem, not out of ideology, but convenience. It was close to where her husband now intended to work. There they built a home and their four younger children were born.
Although they were not overly focused on the IDF, at 16 Uriel decided that he wanted to make it his career. He enrolled in a pre-military academy with dreams of heading into a Golani Brigade unit and eventually becoming chief of General Staff.
She and Eliezer thought he’d be home within three months because he was so small and skinny.
When they arrived at the school for their first parent-teacher conference, they held their heads down and tried to be invisible, because they were so certain they would hear of his failure.
“Someone asked, ‘Whose parents are you?’ We said, ‘Uriel’s.’ ‘Oh,’ they responded, ‘he is a king.’”
It turned out that people loved him because had had a unique ability to unite those around him.
Still, initially, Golani rejected him. Undeterred, he went to work in the kitchen of a Golani unit. “He was proud to be there peeling onions and tomatoes. In the end he was accepted as a combat soldier.”
He was sent to southern Lebanon. As the fighting intensified, Miriam became convinced he would be killed. Although Eliraz by then was also in a Golani unit, she focused all her concern on Uriel.
It was not prophecy, but a good grasp on reality. “Soldiers were killed in Lebanon daily,” recalls Miriam. Her son was a staff sergeant and would be out in front of his men.
The feeling was so strong, that on his last visit home, she refused to be photographed with him out of fear that she would burst into tears.
But he understood and told his sister Hadas that she feared something would happen to him.
Her last words to him were “take care of your men.” She hugged him, but she didn’t say take care of yourself. “I understood there was no point.”
He shared her certainty. The night before his last mission into Lebanon, he told a friend that he knew he would not return.
“So don’t go,” the friend said.
Uriel responded, “But I have already convinced myself that I have to go, and I convinced my men.”
He added that it was important to him to ensure that children could freely roam the country and that his mother could live in security.
Later, they found the same sentiments in a letter he had written before his death.
The night of his death, around midnight, Miriam listened to the news. She heard that Hizbullah had fired on IDF soldiers.
“I decided on my own that Uriel had been killed. I sat up and waited for the officers to come and notify the family. I saw them approach the house from the window,” she says. Uriel’s birthday present was wrapped and waiting for him on the table.
She went outside and screamed his name. “I thought, ‘How could the world be sleeping when my oldest son has been killed?’”
Afterward, she says, she asked herself why he was not afraid. How can you know you are going to die and head out to meet death?
She found the answer in a quote from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who said the greater the certainty, the more the fear of death diminishes.
“When you believe in what you do, the fear is less,” she says. He knew why he had to be there. He felt that throughout Jewish history there had been warriors who sacrificed themselves in this way, such as the Maccabees, and that now it was his turn.
“He said, ‘Now I am the one who defends the country and I do it with great love,’” she says.
“He died for what he believed. The same was true with Eliraz,” she adds.
She also understands why he sacrificed his life: “I believe the nation has been and is in a fierce battle for its existence.”
STILL IT was not immediately obvious that Eliraz would return to combat. The commander of the Golani Brigade said he was not willing to bury two brothers.
Eliraz sought sought advice from the head of his pre-military academy in Atzmona in Gush Katif and a senior officer, Doron Almog, who had lost a brother in combat.
When he heard that Eliraz’s brother had been killed, Almog opened his door to him, saying he could not tell Eliraz what to do, but that whatever he decided, he should fight for his decision.
Eliraz then told his parents he wanted to continue and make a career ofthe army and asked them to sign the waiver that is required by the IDF.
“It was the most significant signature of our lives. Over time wesigned on all kinds of things, mortgages and apartments. But this was asignature for life.
“Eliezer and I didn’t know what to do. We were torn. If we signed andsomething happened, we wouldn’t forgive ourselves. But we’d taught ourchildren to do the things they believed in. Eliraz wanted to be afighter.”
They didn’t sleep the whole night. They cried and prayed. Eliezerbegged God to tell him what to do. In the end, with a trembling handand a shaking body, they signed their names on the document. Sincethen, their sons Avihai, 25, and Eliasaf, 23, have served in Golani andare now in reserve combat units.
After they signed “with a tearful eye and a happy heart and with greatfaith that death was not in our hands, Eliezer told God, ‘Our son’slife is in your hands; make this a signature for life.’”
Once they had signed, she became convinced that Eliraz would not die.
“I thought, ‘God, I have paid my share. I gave already.’ I had confidence that God would not touch me any more. He had already taken Uriel.”
In the years that followed, Eliraz took part in most major battles, Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Every time he came out of it, her certainty that God was watching over him grew, says Miriam. In one instance he was standing in a window with another soldier, Yehuda, when someone called out to him. He turned around, and in that moment Yehuda was killed. He could not go to the funeral, so he sent his wife, Shlomit, who was eight months pregnant, to deliver the eulogy for him.
Another time, when a soldier near him was hit, he immediately leaped on top of him to protect him from further bullets and shrapnel. When he felt that life was easing out of the soldier’s body, he gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation even though the man’s mouth was filled with blood.
In Jenin he was wounded and out of ammunition, so he made use of an M-16 that belonged to a soldier named Gadi Ezra, who had just died in his arms. Afterward, says Miriam, Ezra’s mother told Eliraz that her son had received Uriel’s gun.
Wounded in that battle, Eliraz was taken by helicopter to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. To avoid worrying his mother, he used the fake name of Yisrael Artzi. He didn’t remain there long. He left before his leg was properly treated. Borrowing money, he bought a pair of sneakers and made his way back to Jenin. It was only when he arrived home for Shabbat, and Miriam saw his black-and-blue leg that still had shrapnel in it, that she understood what had happened.
DURING THOSE years, Miriam and Eliezer did their best to memorialize Uriel. They had a Torah scroll named for him. They created a fund in his name and an annual field trip to the North. Miriam taught a leadership class to soldiers based on ideals she believed Uriel had exhibited.
Shlomit came into their lives because she had heard about Uriel in Kiryat Arba, where she lived, and had decided to do a project on him for school and contacted Miriam and Eliezer.
“When I opened the albums, she always asked who that was standing next to Uriel. My husband saw her and said, ‘I want her for Eliraz.’” So Miriam told her son they had met someone for him, but at first he insisted that he was too busy.
They met at Uriel’s grave when she came for a family memorial ceremony on the anniversary of his death.
Shlomit returned to the house with the family and missed the bus back home. Eliraz volunteered to take her. At midnight he called his mother to say that he was staying overnight, but that she shouldn’t worry because they would sleep in separate houses.
She understood from that he was interested in her. Soon they were married. On the day of their wedding he wrote a letter to his father in which he thanked him for everything. “You sacrificed your oldest son and you signed for your second. I have tested you in a way that even Abraham was not tested. You did it with pride. You gave me the courage to continue. You should know that even during all the wars, I knew that I would not die. Even when the bullets screeched and I was wounded, I did not lose hope. The opposite: I sang the song of life.”
From the time he had started in the pre-military academy in Atzmona, Eliraz had wanted to answer three questions: “Who am I, what am I and why am I here?”
He helped his soldiers answer those questions as well, she says.
For a time the couple lived in a small Gush Katif settlement of Slav, but left before the
2005 evacuation. They then built a home in an outpost on the outskirts of Eli, out of a deep belief that Jews had a right to settle there. Their house is one of 12, against which there is a demolition order from the civil administration.
Eliraz was one who always believed things would turn out well. He was drawn to the happiness in life. In contrast, Miriam says, her husband never got over Uriel’s death. Within a year he had a heart attack. Five years ago, he died.
But just before his death, Eliezer decided they should embark on renovating and enlarging the house.
Once it was done after his death, her children insisted, that from here on in, the tone of the house had to change from mourning to one of celebration.
But they managed only one happy event, her daughter Hadas’s wedding.
Miriam says that even when her brother died earlier this year, she sat shiva elsewhere in hopes of preserving a happier tone in the house. For the first time since Uriel’s death, she stopped going to visit him weekly. As she sat by his grave, she apologized, but said it was important to refocus her energies on the living.
“I had my plans. God had his,” she says. “The two did not meet.”
IT HAD already been difficult, she says, as she now sits in the new living room, to focus on two anniversaries of death. The entire year is marked by the time between them.
Now with all three, she does not how she will do it.
“It would have been better if everyone had died at once,” instead of this continual wave of death, she says. For her younger children, she says, it was as if they had lost their father for a second time. Eliraz had immediately stepped in to fill Eliezer’s shoes. They sought his advice on everything.
She is torn, she says, between deep pain that she does not know how to overcome and her strong commitment to the continuation of life, part of which comes from Eliraz himself.
When she last saw Eliraz, it was Purim and he spoke with her about building a new life away from death, and possibly even her remarrying.
In retrospect, it was as if he had left her with an order to live.
It was not the first time he had given her that message.
To explain her point, she takes two stones out of the cabinet in her living room.
In late November 1998, Uriel was in Lebanon with his men. He told them to lie on the ground and he climbed up on a boulder to survey the scene. At that moment six explosions went off. He and another soldier were killed on the spot, recalls Miriam.
After a month, his commander brought her a piece of that boulder.
“The stone is burned. It smells of disaster, fire and blood. I have held it in front of me. Whenever I missed Uriel or I feared he was slipping away from me, I would take out the stone and put it on my heart,” she says, and holds it up to her chest.
“I would feel the moment he was killed. I would wonder, did he call out to me in that moment?”
Eight years later, when he was in Lebanon, Eliraz asked for permission to go back to the spot where Uriel was killed. He brought home a piece of that same boulder. But this stone is white. It still has some sign of the fire, but it does not engulf the stone.
Eliraz asked her to place the burned stone in a box and to remember Uriel instead through the new stone.
Since Uriel’s death, he said, “the rain has fallen, the sun has shone, plants have bloomed around it [the boulder]. Nature and the world have continued.”
It is this new lease on life that she should hold close to her heart, he said.
“But what of the fire?” Miriam asked.
“From time to time look at the stone and you will see that it still has remnants of the fire,” he said.
Since then, she has kept the burned stone in a small ivory box, and the white one outside of it.
“When they build the Third Temple, everyone will donate something. Somewill give money, others will work. I want to put these two stones inthe foundation of that Temple,” says Miriam.
She adds that for her, “these two stones symbolize Jewish existence. Itwas always filled with fire and pain but also with hope. These twostrands have always been bound together. And the lives of my childrenhave symbolized this existential battle.”