Review: And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories

Dreamy detours on a ride to the terminus


By Yossel Birstein (Trans: Margaret Birstein, Hana Inbar, Robert Manaster)
Dryad Press, £9.50

Yossel Birstein was a raconteur of genius, and a writer of the first rank. I was introduced to him by his friend, the painter Yosl Bergner. Born within three weeks of each other in 1920, they met in their teens on a boat bound for Australia. Birstein was sailing to join his grandparents (the majority of his family, who remained in Biala-Podolsk, were murdered by the Nazis). Bergner was following his father, the poet Melech Ravitch, who had spent much of the 1930s seeking a refuge for European Jewry.

When news of the catastrophe they had so narrowly escaped reached Australia, both responded in the only way they knew how; Bergner with brushes, Birstein with the pen. In those days, he regarded himself as a poet. Ravitch judged the poems harshly, and declared them to be without merit. God forbid I should contradict a poet of his esteem, but to my mind they are worthy of consideration, because, among other reasons, they expose the pain that is tucked away in Birstein's later prose like some primal wound.

The poems are raw lamentations, elegies for a lost brother, a lost sister, a lost father, and a lost mother. "It was poetry I chose," he wrote in the collection Under Alien Skies, "for neighbour to my grief."

Perhaps it was because he wanted to live beneath more welcoming skies that he made aliyah shortly after Israel's creation. He was waiting on the dock in Haifa when Bergner turned up in 1950. To supplement his earnings as a writer Birstein was also a shepherd, a bank manager, and finally an archivist. As such, he became the custodian and cataloguer of Melech Ravitch's three-ton archive, bequeathed to the National Library in Jerusalem.

He showed it to me once; stack after stack, all filled with boxes, like a gigantic shoe-store. Each box contained a life or more, and Birstein knew them all, and a hundred stories about each of them. When he told them he became an alchemist, with a golden tongue that could raise the dead. And, one-by-one they returned from the other side, those dreamers of a vanished world.

Not that Jerusalem wasn't full of dreamers. Birstein loved to ride the city buses collecting their stories. Out of the most modest of ingredients come distillations worthy of Chekhov.

It is important to emphasise this life-affirming aspect of his craft, because I have a suspicion that Death was a constant if unspoken stowaway in the buses Birstein rode, like some miserable ticket inspector, and that each of his brilliant miniatures was a snatched victory for life.

The starting point for many of these voyagings was Kiryat Hayovel, a stop or two from Yad Vashem. Sure enough, one day the Angel of Death caught Birstein off-guard and carted him away. But Birstein is far from gone. Read And So Is The Bus, a new selection of his stories, and it will be as though he were chatting beside you on the Number 16.

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