So when I came across ‘Miriam’s Song’ by Smadar Shir, I gobbled it up. The book 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 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 IDF. Her first son, Uriel, died in 1998 in Lebanon aged 22, 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, but it’s also a book of consolation, and not a book of complaint – and I loved that about it.
In the Jewish English-speaking world, tragedy is usually dealt with in two distinct ways: 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 of feelings and personal experiences 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. She mourns a non-Jewish soldier killed in action besides her son with the same intensity as her own child.
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. But it’s not ‘zionistic’ in the Ben Gurion sense of the word, but Godly. A simple Jew’s commitment to their holy land, and their Divinely-ordained destiny as part of the Jewish people.
When I finished the book, I asked my (now 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. But despite rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barack Obama, and attending events at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem, she herself says repeatedly that she’d rather have anonymity, and both her sons alive than all her new-found fame – but God decided otherwise.
And as Miriam herself says towards the end of the book, we can’t fight God. We can only do our best to accept His will, however challenging and painful that sometimes is, and use our strength to continue to live life to the best of our ability, instead of wasting our energy on asking questions that really have no answer.
This book is one of the best I’ve ever read (which is saying something…) and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to try to understand a little of what it means to live in Israel, and to be part of something that transcends and transforms the individual or family unit, and turns it into something that is truly awesome, in its beauty, depth and holiness.