By Rivka Levy
Some books tell a story that reaches far beyond the pages and the author’s own experiences, and that contains the potential to transform the world. One such book is ‘Miriam’s Song’ by Smadar Shir, which tells the true story of Miriam Peretz, who made aliya to Beer Sheva with her Moroccan family as a child.
Miriam grew up in poverty in Casablanca, so when her family moved to a shack in the middle of the cultural wilderness that was Beer Sheva in the 1960s, Miriam felt she’d landed in paradise – despite the terrible living conditions.
But the book’s main focus is not on Miriam’s ancestors, but on her descendants, two of which were killed in action 12 years’ apart, fighting in the Golani unit of the IDF. Her first son, Uriel, died in 1998 in Lebanon aged 19, caught in a Hezbollah ambush.
Her next son, Eliraz, died in 2010 in Gaza aged 32, killed by a grenade fired directly at him by a Hamas terrorist. And in between these two terrible losses, Miriam’s beloved husband Eliezer died from a broken heart, overwhelmed by the loss of his firstborn.
For all that the book deals with some terrible tragedies, and doesn’t shy away from the real, emotional angst of all the family members involved, from Grandma Miriam right down to the children of Eliraz, his young widow Shlomit, and the other surviving siblings in the Peretz family, it’s actually a very hopeful, inspiring book.
Yes, it made me cry, and it made me realize once again the high price that so many of the Jews in Israel pay for the privilege of being here, but for all the sorrow and bereavement lining its pages, it wasn’t depressing, even when it was sad.
Partially, it’s the writing style, that conveys Miriam’s love of life and strong faith, even while bluntly stating the facts about how her sons and husband died. This is not a book that shies away from the real human experience of dealing with terrible tragedies, or that tries to silence the hard questions that inevitably follow in the wake of the premature death of people cut down in their prime. But for all that, it’s primarily a book of consolation, and not a book of complaint – and I loved that about it.
In the Jewish English-speaking world, tragedy is either dealt with academically, from a distance (holocaust lit being a classic example), or up close but anonymously, because no-one wants to put their real name on any real discussion that might hit too close to home.
I know it’s hard to admit our weaknesses, and to share our huge challenges of faith and big questions, particularly when we still might be in the middle of trying to find some genuine comfort and answers. But that’s the beauty of Miriam’s Song: in the middle of her pain and suffering, she still laughs and makes meatballs for her grandchildren.
She effortlessly switches between the simcha of life and the sadness and overwhelming grief that come along with the premature passing of people we love so much. It’s not all or nothing, either or – with Miriam, it’s both. And that is the true strength of her book, and her story.
I loved this book to bits, and even though it described an experience of Israeli life that’s very different to mine, it helped me, an anglo immigrant living in Jerusalem, to feel a bit more like I belonged to the people around me again, however different we may sometimes appear to be.
The ties that bind us are God, a love for our children, and a belief in a national, religious, redemptive destiny that transcends differences like language, appearance, and even religious observance.
Miriam’s love for the Jewish people pours out of the pages, and is reflected in her sons’ own lives and writings that they left behind. Five years’ later, soldiers are going into battle with some of the Peretz brothers’ words copied out and kept in their wallets, notebooks and siddurs. But the book is not so much ‘zionistic’ in the Ben Gurion sense of the word, but Godly. It describes a simple Jew’s commitment to their holy land, and to their Divinely-ordained destiny as part of the Jewish people.
When I finished the book, I asked my (very Israeli….) kids if they’d heard of the original Hebrew version, and they both told me that Miriam Peretz is now a veritable celebrity in Israel – which is born out in the book’s final chapters, which are full of stories of Miriam meeting Obama and a few other internationally notable figures. But as she goes to great pains to spell out, she’d rather have anonymity, and both her sons alive than the celebrity status she now enjoys.
Of the many, many messages the book contains, the main ones I took away from it is that we can’t fight God, and that a parent can’t stand in the way of their child finding their own true path in life – however dangerous or fraught it may appear to be. Miriam tells us that we can only do our best to accept God’s will, however challenging and painful that sometimes is, and use our strength to live life to the best of our ability, instead of wasting our energy on asking questions that really have no answer.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to try to understand a little of what it means to live in Israel, and to sacrifice for a goal that transcends and transforms the individual or family unit.
Miriam lost many members of her family in order to keep me and my family – and millions of other Jews here in Israel – safe. Would I do the same, if I had sons? That’s a huge question, and the honest answer is that I don’t really know. But by reminding us that each of the IDF’s soldiers who fall in battle have a mother, and a family, and a life they leave behind, Miriam brought home something of the true price of war, and also the true importance of keeping the peace, however fragile it sometimes seems to be.
Rivka Levy lives in Jerusalem. Her latest book: Talk to God and Fix Your Health: The Real Reasons Why We Get Sick and How to Stay Healthy is out on January 31, published by the Matronita Press. Visit her at: www.spiritualselfhelp.org
Title: Miriam’s Song: The Story of Miriam Peretz
Publisher: Gefen Publishing House
Author: Smadar Shir
ISBN: 9789652298751 Hardcover $34.95 ISBN: 9789652298355 Paperback $29.95