Yael's life changed when she saw epic film Exodus

YAEL Politis, who has just published her first novel on an extremely pro-Zionist theme, was born non-Jewish in a Michigan town with no Jewish residents or Israel connection.

Yael, who changed her name from Janet Lewis when she converted to Judaism on an Israeli religious kibbutz, first heard about the Jewish state when she saw the film Exodus.

She said: "When the movie came out, my family got dressed up to see it. I must have been about 11 or 12 at the time.

"I wasn't really in the mood for a long movie about the Bible, as I thought from its name.

"But I was extremely moved by the film. Before seeing it, I don't know if I could have told you what a Jew was. When we got home I began reading the book, which had even more of an effect.

"Around the same time, the Eichmann trial was taking place in Israel and I read every book about Israel that I could get my hands on."

She continued: " When I went to Ann Arbor University, Michigan, I wanted to learn Hebrew.

"But at Ann Arbor they only had a basic course on simple transliterated conservation, which did not even teach the Hebrew letters.

"So I transferred to Wisconsin University where there were was a very large number of Jewish students, as well as lots of Israelis, studying for doctorates."

While there, her roommate who was constantly hearing Janet - as she was then - going on about Israel, saw an advert in a student journal for a summer trip on kibbutz and advised her to try it out.

She spent her summer with other, as she terms, "spoilt American kids" working in beautiful apricot orchards and chicken runs, in between the constant trips that the students took.

Janet found the latter more strenuous than the former.

She said: "Climbing Masada at 4am and then going on a long trek before a swim was harder than the work."

Nevertheless, the experience pleased Janet so much that after majoring in semitic languages and archaeology in Wisconsin, in 1973 she moved to Israel, initially staying in Kibbutz Regavim, near Pardes Hanna.

She loved the "quiet, green, peaceful" area which she describes as the "Tuscany of Israel" and today has opted to buy a house in Pardes Hanna because of her love of its surroundings. Yael's debut novel, The Lonely Tree, describes her heroine Tonia's love-hate - more hate than love - relationship with the kibbutz in which she spent her teenage years.

Yael has now put kibbutz life well behind her, but in 1973 she found its tight-knit social cohesion ideal for a non-Jewish American settling in the land of her dreams.

She said: "It was perfect for someone moving to a completely foreign country.

"But I never wanted to live permanently on kibbutz."

But Janet soon realised that if she wanted to really integrate into Israeli society she needed to convert to Judaism. So she moved to the religious kibbutz of Ein Tsurim, near Ashkelon.

She was fortunate to be the first convert approved by the kibbutz's Beth Din, under the auspices of Rabbi Haim Druckman.

Yael described her conversion process as totally opposite to the horror conversion stories she has since read about. She says: 'I found it a very pleasant and uplifting experience.

"The only time I had second thoughts was when someone told me that I had to cut off all contact with my non-Jewish family. In a panic, I phoned Rabbi Druckman who assured me that was certainly not the case.

"He said one had to cut oneself off spiritually but still have gratitude and respect towards one's parents."

She continued: "When I heard that my conversion was imminent, I again called Rabbi Druckman, scared that I did not yet know everything.

"He replied that as he didn't yet know everything, I wasn't expected to know everything, that it was my kevana (intention) which was important."

Besides becoming Jewish at Ein Tsurim, the religious kibbutz became the inspiration for Yael's novel The Lonely Tree, which is centred on the true story of Kibbutz Etzion, many of whose residents were massacred by the Arabs on the day before the State of Israel was declared in 1948.

As Ein Tsurim had been founded in 1949 by those who had managed to flee the Gush Etzion massacre, every home there when Yael arrived in 1973 was full of books and memories of the atrocity.

Once again, as with Exodus, Yael was gripped by the pathos of the drama.

She says: "It was an incredible story of struggle, surrender and longing, followed by a return in 1967 when the children of survivors came back to visit the site." Discovering that no one had yet turned the incredible tale into fiction, Yael resolved to do so herself, creating a fictional family of principle characters whose lives are shaped by the tragic events.

The novel stayed for decades in her desk drawer as Yael married and moved to Neve Dekalim in the Gaza Strip, where she gave birth to her two children - son Tal and daughter Ella Elbaz, who currently lives in London's South Hampstead.

Yael has four grandchildren but is now divorced and lives in Pardes Hanna.

The novel eventually won a Book of the Year award from YouWriteOn and has now been published by Holland Park Press (14.99).

Yael was particularly keen to publish the novel after her experience of living in the Gaza Strip, which made her empathise with what it had been like for the late 1940s inhabitants of the West Bank Etzion Bloc.

She says: "When we married, the government was encouraging people to live in the territories. We were given the choice of the Golan, Gush Etzion or Gush Katif in Gaza. In the days before the Intifada, Gaza was a different world from what it is now. It was quiet and peaceful.

"I used to go to the Arab city to buy shoes."

Although Yael left Gaza long before the Israelis evacuated it in 2005, she went back to pay a shiva call to friends in Neve Dekalim as the final blockades were being put up.

She said: "I was in tears. My friends thought it was because of their bereavement. But it was so sad knowing that such a lovely place was going to be destroyed."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph