And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories
- By Yossel Birstein; translated by Margaret Birstein, Hana Inbar, and Robert Manaster
- Dryad Press
- 148 pp.
- Reviewed by Yelizaveta P. Renfro
- February 11, 2016
Spare tales of fascinating, fleeting encounters.
Yossel Birstein (1920-2003) fled his native Poland for Australia during the Holocaust and later moved to Israel, where his varied occupations included working as a shepherd, bank manager, archivist, and, most notably, writer of fiction.
And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories is the first collection of the writer’s work in English. In his foreword, Clive Sinclair writes that, in Jerusalem, Birstein “found himself in a repository of stories — each individual a walking drama,” and from these brief encounters, he crafted “distillations worthy of Chekhov.”
Indeed, the 21 stories that appear in this slim volume are exercises in restraint, compact gems that glint fiercely but briefly, illuminating the lives of the people Birstein encounters in his travels around Jerusalem.
Birstein’s stories capture the nature of city life and a glimpse into his own existence. Having lost his parents and most of his family in the Holocaust, he often underscores his encounters with a sense of urgency; he has a pressing need to get to the heart of a story before the teller exits the bus and is swept away out of his life forever.
In “Customer on the Way,” Birstein tells of his encounter with a man who owns a shoe shop. The man is heading to the cemetery “to visit his dead,” a wife, a son, and a daughter. During the course of the conversation, the shoe salesman admires Birstein’s shoes — which he’s worn for 20 years — and invites him to his shop where he has a pair just like them. By the time the narrator makes his way there, a month later, it’s too late: The shoemaker has died, and most of his stock has been sold off. Watching the salesman step off the bus at the cemetery to go “meet his dead” was Birstein’s final glimpse of this life.
Birstein himself — the roving seeker of tales and rider of buses — is the affable narrator of these stories. Often, he sets out not with a destination in mind, but rather to hear the people of Jerusalem’s tales.
In “Portrait of a Line at a Bus Stop,” he begins: “I left my house to be among people.” Never boarding himself, the narrator instead listens to the people waiting for the bus. He “very much wanted the bus to be late” so that he could hear more of the stories being told. When the bus finally arrives, the narrator stays behind. “The line was gone,” he recounts. “I remained alone, leaning against a light pole, waiting for a new line to start.”
Birstein recognizes that the tales he learns are but slim slices of people’s full lives. In “The Crumb Picker,” he writes of a seatmate on Bus 15 who sells him two tracts on diabetes and high blood pressure for three shekels apiece. When the man asks if Birstein has heard about the liberation of Jerusalem, the narrator withdraws three more shekels from his pocket, ready to pay for another tract, but this time the man “drew out from his bag a blank sheet and said that he hadn’t yet written the story. He didn’t have its ending. Once he knew the end, he’d put the liberation of Jerusalem in writing. In the meantime I’d have to wait.”
Toward the end of the piece, a woman who knows the narrator asks him if he has a new Jerusalem story in mind. “Not yet, I told her, you must wait. Without an end, there’s no story.” And thus concludes this story — the end showing an acute awareness of the nascent, tenuous quality of stories-in-progress, especially those encountered on a bus.
In an insightful foreword by Birstein’s daughter and co-translator, Hana Inbar, we learn something of the writer’s impetus for his economy of language. Inbar explains that her father’s “gut language” — which he spoke for the first 16 years of his life — was Yiddish. Upon moving to Australia, he learned English; later, at 30, he moved to Israel and transitioned to Hebrew, living out the remaining 53 years of his life in a Hebrew-speaking environment. Still, as Inbar points out, “When a new language enters your life at the age of thirty, it never becomes your gut language.”
As a result, Inbar writes, “Here was an avid storyteller walking around in the world without a gut language to tell his stories in. What do you do? You tell stories without a language. You wage war against words. You use as few of them as possible.”
“I once met a man who, between the red and green, told me his whole life story,” Birstein writes in “Under the Pressure of Time.” In this tight tale, the narrator shares a seat with Carmella, a woman with a frosty demeanor who ends up telling “a long story in just a few words.” When her conversation with another woman about the funeral of an acquaintance is interrupted, “The desire to tell was still there, and the story wasn’t lost.”
Exiting the bus, she turns to the narrator and offers him a six-word description of the funeral that encapsulates the terseness of communication on the bus and the frugality of Birstein’s prose. “It was not like his wedding,” she says, departing from the narrator’s life.
Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays (University of New Mexico Press, 2014), and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World (Black Lawrence Press, 2010). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader's Digest, Blue Mesa Review, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.