(Photo: Shimshon Seligson)
Woman of Valor
An Interview with Miriam Peretz
In 2018, Miriam Peretz was awarded the Israel Prize for Outstanding Contributions to Israeli Society. Her story of faith, resilience and hope in the face of losing two sons in the IDF, as well as her husband, has captured the hearts of Israelis of all backgrounds. At the award ceremony on Israel’s 70th Yom HaAtzmaut, she addressed the people of Israel on national television. In the words of one journalist, “her speech formulated for many what it means to be an Israeli”, and within a few weeks it was announced that her speech would be incorporated into the educational curriculum at Israeli schools.
Rabbi Aron White had the privilege to speak with Miriam Peretz in her home in Givat Ze’ev to learn about her life, her story and her hopes for the future.
You are known today as Miriam Peretz, a presidential candidate and the winner of the Israel Prize. But your life story begins as Miriam Ochayon, in Casablanca, Morocco. What do you remember from your childhood home, and what aspects of your upbringing stay with you to this day?
I am so glad that you asked! People so often focus on the last few years, and forget that I, like every other person, have roots. My roots are in Morocco, even though my dreams have always been in Eretz Yisrael.
My parents were simple Jews from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. They could not read or write, but maintained a pure faith that had been passed down through generations. My mother did not know how to pray from a siddur, but she knew how to pray from her heart. Every morning, my mother would stand by the mezuzah and pray for twenty minutes. I learned something from her that Rav Kook writes a lot about: the importance of focusing on the klal (community). My mother would pray for the whole world, for Am Yisrael, and only then for herself. To this day, I have my time every day when I stand by the mezuzah and remind G-d of the prayer of my mother. I feel very grateful that I grew up in a home that was filled with such an emotional type of faith, rather than a more rational faith. If I only had rational explanations for G-d, I don’t know if it would have sufficed for what I went through later. My parents taught me a simple, pure faith; my father taught me that everything is bid d’Allah, “in the hands of Hashem.” Their faith was planted deeply in my heart.
From the mountains, my parents moved to Casablanca, where I lived with my parents, grandfather and four siblings. Our house had one room: we had no tables, no chairs, no cupboards. We had mattresses, which we used for sitting, eating, and sleeping – everything! We had no running water, but would fill up a barrel which we called the baño, in order to wash ourselves once a week. We were incredibly poor, but this poverty taught me how to value every little thing. I had one pen – so I knew how to take good care of it!
One of the most important aspects of my home was that my father cooked and took care of the children, and my mother would go out and work!
In 1964, you made Aliyah from Morocco to Israel. What was your experience of making Aliyah like?
We moved to a ma’abarah, an immigrant transit camp, located in Be’er Sheva. This was the sixties, when much of Israel was developed, but in the ma’abarah we didn’t have a refrigerator or central gas!
One of the greatest challenges we faced when we made Aliyah was the language barrier. I was a ten-year-old girl and struggled to learn Hebrew, but my parents found it even harder, and so I had to become their spokesperson and advocate. We would go to the social services with my parents, and as a little girl I would be the one telling the government official “we don’t have a blanket, we need this or that.” Even once we left the ma’abarah and moved to the city, there would often be a line outside my house, as I would write letters for people who didn’t know how to write themselves.
A second challenge was getting used to the Israeli mentality. In Morocco, we grew up with a tremendous sense of respect for parents and teachers. In Israel, I went to school and heard a child shouting at his mother – I was shocked! It wasn’t easy getting used to the sabra mentality.
The third challenge for our family was making a living. My father worked as a street cleaner and my mother would bake bread for other people in the camp. She set up an oven in our house, and I remember that on Fridays people would line up in front of our house beginning at 4 a.m. My mother would bake bread all day, standing next to the fire – and this was in Be’er Sheva in the desert! But she never complained. She was happy that she could help others, and that they would give her a little bit of food which helped us out.
But you know what? We were the happiest people in the world. There are people who sink and drown in the challenges that they face, but we were so happy to be in Eretz Yisrael! We got by, even with the cultural and financial challenges, and being in Israel made everything worth it.
The terrible losses you and your family have suffered forever altered the trajectory of your life. Your son Uriel was killed while serving in the IDF in 1998. A few years later your husband Eliezer died, and then in 2010 your son Eliraz was also killed during his army service. How did you have the strength to carry on after these moments?
When I was informed about Uriel’s death, my first reaction was shock. I just couldn’t process it – how can it be that I spoke to my son yesterday, and today he isn’t here anymore? I was not ready for his death; I had not prepared for it.
After the shiva, do you know what the first challenge I faced was? To make a sandwich for my daughter in third grade. Do you know how much strength that took? Who wants to carry on normal life? Who wants to eat? I just wanted Uriel’s grave to open up and swallow me up.
I also had to be the support for my whole household. Each member of the family processed the loss differently. One child started asking, “Where is G-d, how could He have done something like this?” My husband became physically sick – on Uriel’s first yahrzeit he suffered a heart attack. I knew I was the backbone of the family. As a woman, I had a deep desire to make sure my house wouldn’t fall apart, and this made me find the strength to be the rock of the house. It was very difficult, but I knew what my goal was.
In addition to the effort just to keep my household going, there were also the questions of faith. When we lived in the Sinai Desert, Eliezer set up a one-man kiruv program with a shul and beit midrash in Sharm El Sheikh. “This is Torah, and this is its reward?” (Menachot 29b). There is the line often quoted from Iyov, “Hashem has given life, and has taken life, may Hashem’s name be blessed” (Iyov 1:21). I had a very hard time with that line, and am jealous of those who are able to really feel that. I am not an angel, I am a mother. I just want my son to hug him, to speak with him, to feel him. I turned to Hashem, and demanded from Him that He give me my son!
But then a conversation began, a dialogue with G-d. I would talk to Him, as if He was right next to me, and say, “This isn’t fair, why are You doing this?” And a tango began between us. Sometimes we would be close, sometimes he would throw me away, we would move closer, move further; but the dance began. I began to be able to see the good I still had in my life, to be appreciative, and to focus on life rather than on death.
Then, five years after Uriel was killed, my husband Eliezer died. I was alone, a widow, with five children. You might not believe it, but some of my lowest moments were in seemingly simple situations. I remember that I had to replace a lightbulb. It was dark in the house, no one else was around, and I was scared to get up on the chair in case I fell. At that point I shouted, “Eliezer, where are you?!” The challenges are in living daily life with a sense of pressure that everything is on me – to buy things, to fix things, to keep life going – everything is on me. But I had already taught myself how to cope in certain ways. I knew that I had to try and focus on the good, such as my first grandchildren being born.
And then, a few years later Eliraz was killed in action. This time it was different, because I knew what death was. Having experienced it before, I already knew what I was going to go through again. However, there were new aspects that I hadn’t had before. I was now a grandmother, and had to support my grandchildren who no longer had their father. I had to support my daughter-in-law, who was only 32 years old and was now a widow with four young children.
Once again, I had to deal with the question of faith. Eliraz was a real ben Torah. He made an agreement with his wife that when he returned home from the army, he would first go to the beit midrash. He had such a deep love of Hashem! When they came to inform me of Eliraz’s death, I closed the door on them, and turned to the photo of Eliezer on the wall and said “Eliezer, what did you do in Heaven? How did you let G-d do this?!” I also closed the door on them, because I knew what I was going to hear. I wanted another minute, another two minutes, as if my son was still alive for that time, before hearing the dreadful news. I remember closing the doors, and being conscious of every second, every moment that Eliraz was still alive for me. When they told me the news, I said to the soldiers that there’s someone else you need to inform. They didn’t understand – my husband was dead, my children were in the house, who else was there to inform? I said to them, “Go out into the courtyard, look up at the heavens, and tell G-d that His son Eliraz has been killed.”
At this point, I realized how thankful I was to have grown up in a home with such emotional faith. In certain homes people would start asking questions: “what does this Rabbi say”, “this is Rabbi so-and-so’s approach to suffering.” But fortunately I had rock-solid faith in my heart. I turned to Hashem, and I said, “Hashem, I will never understand how You run the world. Please teach me to love You even without all the answers! Please teach me how to love You despite all that has happened to me!” When I turned back and entered the house, and when I saw my children, I saw the beginning of a path of hope. I suddenly said to myself: “I have more children! Thank You, Hashem!” Imagine what I would have felt if I had no more children! On the same day that they told me my son had been killed, I was able to see not only what I was lacking, but also what I have. And from that day, I really feel so close to Hashem that I can’t even put it into words. I see Him in every small thing. If I trip while walking and am able to catch myself, I say “Hashem, thank You for helping me.” If I am looking for my glasses at home and I find them, I say thank You to Hashem! I don’t need Hashem to split the sea for me; there are miracles every day. A child born healthy, marrying off children, getting through a pandemic. Even when I was alone for Shabbatot and chagim during Corona – I had food, I had a table, I had people leaving packages outside my door! I am thankful for everything I have. Every morning I stand by the mezuzah, and after praying for everything that I pray for, I say thank You for giving me strength to stand, to drink my coffee. Eliraz’s daughter was a few months old when he was killed, and now she is going to become a Bat Mitzvah. His son was six years old, and now he is about to join the IDF, to serve in Golani just as his father and uncle did. Thank You, Hashem!
I also said to Hashem: “I didn’t choose Your decree, but I did choose to grapple with it. I chose to cleave to life – please help me fill my life with meaning and purpose!” I know the value of every minute, and pray that I can use all my time on this earth for good. When I speak to IDF groups or abroad, all of my lectures are on a voluntary basis – this is the minimum I could do for my people and my country!
You also had a remarkable chapter of your life that took place in the Sinai Desert. As we are approaching Pesach, can you tell us about that period in your life?
When Eliezer and I got married, he was working in Sharm El Sheikh, four hours south of Eilat. Israel controlled the Sinai Desert at that time, and we moved there. We were the only religious family there, and we made a shul and a beit midrash. It was regularly over 120 degrees Fahrenheit there, so at the entrance to the shul there were not only kippot but shirts too!
In 1982, Israel decided to return the Sinai Desert to the Egyptians. I had spent 6 years building my family there, teaching Tanach and Jewish history in the local school, and suddenly our community was going to be uprooted. We protested against the decision, but I learned then the value of treating the authorities with respect. Ultimately, we respected the decision even though it was difficult.
The last Pesach we spent in Sharm El Sheikh was a truly surreal experience. We were reading the haggadah, about how Hashem took us out of Egypt, and here I was, about to leave my house and return it to the Egyptians! I was also faced with a significant question. What would I tell my children? Should I tell my children that the State of Israel has lost its way? That we should no longer serve in the IDF? It is at moments like this that mothers have a unique role, and that is to plant hope. This is something I learned from Miriam in the Torah. When Bnei Yisrael left Egypt she took a tambourine with her. Of all the things in the house, the most important thing to take in that commotion of leaving Egypt was a tambourine? She foresaw that there would come a moment when the Jews would celebrate, when they would sing! We must never lose this perspective, and that is why I told my children: “We are going to build a new home in Eretz Yisrael,” and we moved to Givat Ze’ev in Yerushalayim. We are a people of hope, and we know that ultimately Hashem is הַנּוֹתֵן לַיָּעֵף כֹּחַ, “The One Who gives strength to those who need it.”