Those of us who live and work in Israel as journalists and book reviewers for international publications often have to wait until an Israeli bestseller is translated from Hebrew into English. I, for one, am very excited when this occurs, and especially for a biography like Miriam’s Song: The Story of Miriam Peretz (Gefen Publishing House, 2016) by Smadar Shir.
Shirat Miriam was published in Israel in 2011 and became a bestseller, with more than 20,000 copies sold. It is Peretz’s story, as recounted to Shir, who is a prolific author and composer, as well as a senior journalist at the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
Peretz was born in Casablanca, where her family lived until she was 10 years old. In 1963, they immigrated to Israel, initially living in an immigrant camp in Beersheva. After graduating high school, Peretz went to Ben-Gurion University and became a teacher.
When she was 21, she met Eliezer Peretz, who was 31, also Moroccan. They married, and he returned to his work in Sharm el-Sheikh. She eventually joined him there, until the city was evacuated. Meanwhile, she began teaching, and they started their family, ultimately having six children.
In November 1998, Uriel, their 22-year-old son, a Golani (special forces) officer was killed in Lebanon, while in the army. Peretz kept going.
“My husband was overcome with sadness and wouldn’t go to work, but I had no choice but to continue functioning,” she says.
Peretz got a master’s degree in educational administration. Her second son joined the army, while she and her husband continued processing their grief for Uriel. She began visiting schools and military bases to talk about her son.
In 2005, her husband died – only 56 years old. And then, in March 2010, her son, Eliraz, married with four children, was killed while in the army.
In December 2010, then-Israel Defence Forces Chief of General Staff Lt.-Col. Gabi Ashkenazi awarded her a medal of appreciation. He said: “Miriam’s ability to continue to express her deep pain and channel it into a contribution to the education and formation of future generations, serves as an example and model of inspiration for us all.”
The next chapters of Miriam’s Song are told by each of Peretz’s four surviving children.
Miriam left her principal position after 27 years to become a Jerusalem district supervisor with the education ministry. After Miriam’s Song was published in Hebrew, Peretz began to travel to the United States for the organization Friends of the Israel Defence Forces. In 2014, she was a torchbearer on Israel Independence Day.
For a feature on International Women’s Day this year in the Jerusalem Post, Peretz was interviewed and photographed along with two other mothers who had each lost a son. Journalist Tal Ariel Amir writes, “these three courageous women have risen from the ashes of their despair.”
People ask what it is like to live in Israel. Although Miriam’s Song is replete with courage, faith and commitment, it is also about tragedy and sacrifice. It is a book to read to understand what it means to be a woman, a wife, a mother in Israel today.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads weekly walks in English in Jerusalem’s market.