And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories

Yos­sel Birstein; Mar­garet Birstein, Hana Infar, and Robert Man­aster, trans.
  • Review
By – February 5, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.

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