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Grains of Sand: The Fall of Neve Dekalim
By Shifra Shomron
188 pages; $16.95
After the first few minutes of speaking with Shifra Shomron over the phone, the similarities between this young author and the heroine of her debut novel, Grains of Sand: The Fall of Neve Dekalim, become apparent. She's busy studying for finals, and she asks to hold the interview when they are over.
Shomron, 20, like her heroine Efrat Yefet, is studious, industrious, a "star student" and something of a bookworm. One probably has to be to publish a novel at 19. She is strikingly poised, mature and idealistic for her age. At times she passionately gives facts and information about her community like a caring yet strict teacher - which is a good thing, since her ambition is to impact society as a high-school English teacher.
Grains of Sand is the first novel to emerge out of the rubble of Gush Katif, and it is through teenaged Efrat Yefet that Shomron allows readers to become familiar with life there in the years leading up to disengagement.
As I step into the Shomron family caravilla (prefab housing unit) in Nitzan, more similarities between the author and Efrat begin to surface. A golden retriever rushes to the door and happily greets me as another fluffy-haired mutt looks on. The Shomrons' three dogs are characters in the novel, and pictures of them illustrate the book.
The portrait of an animal-loving Gush Katif family of four fits with another one of Shomron's literary purposes, to break stereotypes of settlers.
"I wanted my family to be different, to show the heterogeneous nature of the settlers that society often overlooks," explains the petite brunette in her small kitchen/dining room.
Shomron proves to be an articulate, knowledgeable spokeswoman for her community - thanks in part to her work as an English translator for Friends of Gush Katif - but she also wrote the novel, which she began in April 2005, as a means of therapy.
"Writing my book was incredibly therapeutic for me and it was probably one of the reasons I was able to finish it so quickly - to finish writing my book in one year. It was my way of dealing with things," she says
Shomron's actual family is much bigger than the family she portrayed. Shomron is the second of seven children. Her family made aliya from Phoenix, Arizona, in 1992 and discovered Neveh Dekalim during their search for a religious-Zionist community.
"It turned out to be a wonderful community. They were incredibly warm and they had a family adopt us and provide us with basic services," says Shomron, her mother looking on proudly. Her father, like the patriarch in the novel, worked as a mashgiah (kashrut supervisor) at a farm in the settlement of Bedolah. He is currently unemployed, but fortunately, Shomron says, he has many hobbies, like taking care of the dogs and gardening.
Unemployment is still very high in Nitzan. "They hang around the house all day with no reason to get up in the morning," she notes.
Her mother instilled within her a love of reading and a sense of Jewish pride and destiny. Her parents named her Shifra after the biblical midwife who defied Pharaoh's orders to kill Jewish male newborns.
"My parents always hoped I would have the ability to stand up for what I believe is right, and Shifra stands up to Pharaoh and goes against him. It's actually an amazing biblical story. And I think that we, the people of Gush Katif, had to experience that - standing up to the government, the courts and the media to a certain extent - holding up our truth and what we believed was our right to stay in Gush Katif."
In their tiny backyard, another scene from the book comes to life. Her 17-year-old brother is reading a book his sister lent him: the diary of Mordechai Tennenbaum, who headed the Jewish resistance in the Bialystok ghetto. In the novel Efrat reads pro-Zionist books and regularly shares with her brother Yair her admiration for feisty Zionist Jews.
In addition to books about proud Jewish identity, Shomron counts among her favorites the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien and P.G. Wodehouse, but she's not too fond of Anne Frank.
"I wasn't able to identify with Anne Frank at all. She was from an assimilated family, and even with the Holocaust going on around her, she was interested in becoming a Dutch citizen, and she was overjoyed when her father gave her the New Testament to read. I read that and think: My goodness! Doesn't she realize she's part of the Jewish nation?"
The destruction of Gush Katif gave her the impetus to finish the book and become the type of author she admired.
Grains of Sand reads like a young adult novel with a religious orientation, but it is intended for a diverse readership that seeks to deepen its understanding of Gush Katif life. The straightforward, third-person narrative, interspersed with diary entries by the heroine, takes the reader through the ups and downs of the community: the idyllic, happy, tight-knit religious home and community life of the residents; the terrifying intifada that claimed many Jewish lives there; the struggle to enjoy life amid the constant threat of mortar attacks; and the fears and doubts of the community in the year leading up to disengagement.
The novel ends right before the actual evacuation, and the reader doesn't get to witness the Yefets being taken from their home by the IDF.
"I didn't want to focus on the actual disengagement because we all saw that on television," Shomron says. "I wanted to focus on what we didn't know." Some people have told her that the cliffhanger ending is a bit "cruel," but that's how she described disengagement. "It ended very quickly and abruptly. In one week Gush Katif was destroyed and we were all scattered."
She plans to write a sequel once they are settled in a permanent home, a process which can take up to five years, but for now, she says, the resolution of the disengagement is still painfully unclear.
"It's still very difficult. You always compare. You can't help but compare. There's not one thing for which I can say: This is as good as it was in Gush Katif."
Aspects of the possible sequel are already apparent. The family is squeezed into the 90 square-meter caravilla. Walls are chipping. Boxes are still unpacked in the living room. Above them are family portraits - the brit mila of her youngest brother, the siblings decorating the succa - pictures that remind them of their happy times. On a counter nearby are some "souvenirs" mortar shells that fell in Gush Katif.
"Heaven forbid a mortar would land here," Shomron says. The prefab structures would collapse and there are no bomb shelters in the area, she warns.
"It's been two years and Gush Katif is never out of our mind, and as time goes on, you would think we'd be able to move on, but because we are stuck in caravan sites which are temporary, we can't move on."
Shomron keeps herself busy with her studies at Givat Washington and working with children in her community to help them catch up with their studies. Grains of Sand has helped her cope with her loss, but the internal unrest and longing endures.
"I had a hope that when I wrote everything down, I'd be able to put it behind me and move on. That was an illusion because after writing my book and even publishing it, Gush Katif continues to live with me."