Glancing at these twenty-one vignettes by a renowned Israeli storyteller, one might be tempted to call Yossel Birstein a minimalist. However, that appellation might suggest that Birstein pared his compact prose gems down from larger constructions. More likely, he simply knew when enough was enough. How long is a bus ride? How long is the stretch between stops? How much human interaction can occur? How much be remembered and related? How much does a reader need? Birstein’s sharp, laconic focus fraught with well-chosen details, wit, brief ruminations, and lingering questions produces tiny masterpieces of cultural insight and human yearning.
A man sits on a bus, observes the people who get on and off, takes in the shifting environment of connected neighborhoods, and slowly builds a verbal collage of Jerusalem. He knows that the many routes that create the city’s skeleton are alive with longing, desperation, frustration, fear, wisdom, appointments met and broken, and aspirations approached and abandoned. Sometimes the man engages, sometimes he overhears, and often he simply observes. He encounters strangers, old acquaintances, and new possibilities for continued or fleeting relationships, recognizing these comings and goings as pulses of the city’s life cycle.
An archivist at the Hebrew University, Birstein is also a spiritual archivist of souls lost and found. His jottings collect and house the chance appearances of the astonishingly varied population of Jerusalem bus riders that make up the modern texture of the ancient city. The randomness of these recorded encounters gives way to a sense of inevitability — of beshert happenings. There is also an unexpected, almost unfathomable sense of intimacy. With his ear for voices and his eye for body language and facial expression, Yossel Birstein transforms, elevates, and celebrates the ordinary.
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Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.