By its public transport system shall you know a city. This engaging book is a portrait of Jerusalem—and a self-portrait of its author, Yossel Birstein—through a series of anecdotes and memories mostly centred around that most humble outing: the bus journey.
Where the London Underground has recently seen the unofficial distribution of “Tube chat?” badges intended to get the city’s famously frosty commuters talking, there is no need of such interventions in Jerusalem, or at least not when Birstein is around. If he doesn’t strike up a conversation with his neighbour, they’ll strike one up with him: the woman with a pushchair (“Beautiful like a Swedish movie star!”); the man keen to show off his prosthetic leg (“From Russia… fine wood. Twenty-two years in Israel, the wood didn’t go bad”); the shoe shop owner who is interested in his well-worn pair. If there’s no one to talk to, Birstein eavesdrops. If there’s nothing worth listening to, there’s always something to watch.
The portrait that emerges is of a city and a country caught between the twin pulls of tradition and modernity. A characteristic scene has a young Chasid orchestrating a one-man demonstration, who clashes with a female reporter sent to cover the event. Possibly feeling exposed by the lack of audience, he turns on her, calling her names and then chasing her down and physically threatening her. “The Chasid grabbed the blonde ponytail and pulled until her head got nearly plucked back. The reporter grabbed the golden sidelocks and pulled too. Her upper body arched backward, and because of her pull the Chasid nearly bent over her. Both looked as if in the midst of a love dance.”
You feel that Birstein’s sympathies are more with the reporter than the Chasid, and yet it is his detachment that shines through, his unerring writer’s instinct to note and observe what happens around him. The first story in the book tells of a visit from Yochanan Zaid, son of murdered Jewish hero Alexander Zaid, and his encounter with an Arab woman. I won’t spoil it here. Where politics rears its head in these pages, Birstein usually observes impartially, and what he looks for first is the human side of the story.
Birstein, who died in 2003, was born in Poland in 1920 and emigrated to Australia in 1936 (his parents and two siblings died in the Holocaust), before moving to Israel in 1950. He wrote poems and novels, and contributed a weekly “Jerusalem story” to the newspaper Kol Ha’ir (The Voice of the City). It from those that this selection is made, with Hana Inbar, Birstein’s daughter, and Robert Manaster working up the original translations from the Hebrew made by Birstein’s widow, Margaret. Although some early versions were printed in the Jewish Chronicle in the 1980s, this is the first book-length English translation of his work.
Inbar also contributes a moving introduction, in which she suggests that these bus-stop tales were the perfect literary form for her father. Brought up speaking Yiddish, and then transplanted to anglophone Australia, he found himself at the age of thirty immersed in another new language, Hebrew. What do you do in this situation, she asks. “You wage war against words. You use as few of them as possible. You need to be able to use them like the brush at the hands of Picasso: an eye, a hand, a nipple—a woman.”
Writing in a third language made Birstein concentrate on the verbal, on people’s ability to tell a lifetime’s story in a few words. There is a great deal of humanity in these twenty-one stories, but, too, a pervading sense of mortality, always lurking. With notes, glossary and a foreword by Clive Sinclair—who shepherded those first few stories of Birstein’s into English back in the 1980s—this is a fine introduction to a little-known writer. The only thing it lacks—especially bearing in mind Birstein’s keen eye for changes in society, and the intrusions of history into everyday life—is dates for the individual stories. They are so alive they seem like they could have been written yesterday, but it may be that the Jerusalem Birstein saw starting to disappear is already long-gone.
Jonathan Gibbs is a London-based writer and critic. His novel Randall, or The Painted Grape, was longlisted for the 2015 Desmond Elliot Prize.
And So Is the Bus :
By Yossel Birstein
Translated by Margaret Birstein, Hana Inbar, Robert Manaster, with a foreword by Clive Sinclair
Dryad Books, 2016
This review appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Jewish Quarterly. Subscribe here.