Birstein, Yossel. “And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories”, Dryad Press, 2016.
On the Bus
Having lived and worked in Jerusalem for many years, I used the bus to get where I needed to go. In Israel, the bus serves more than just public transportation and I found that it was a great way to practice my Hebrew when I was a new immigrant as well a wonderful way to meet people and hear their stories. Yossel Birstein here brings us twenty-one stories that he heard as he rode around the city. I remember a wonderful book by Edmund White, “The Flaneur” and I thought to myself that this is a wonderful term for a stroller or one who saunters. It is also a wonderful for Yossel Birstein who managed to unite strolling with riding a bus and staying aware of what others were talking about. Not exactly an eavesdropper, he was able to engage with people and get them to tell their stories. A bus ride is anything but a smooth way to get from here to there. Buses stop every so often and riders get off and get on—the composition is constantly changing. Keeping in mind that Israel is a country of immigrants and different life styles, the chances of hearing great stories is everywhere. On the bus, however, stories tend to be short since so are the bus rides so one must remain alert and this is where the driver comes in, If you have ever taken a bus in Israel, you know what I mean—the rides are far from comfortable because the driver does what he feels he has to do to bring his passengers to their destinations.
Because the stories are short, we real only get a glimpse at who the teller is but I love this since it is up to us to imagine who he/she is. Sometimes they are willing to share what they have and sometimes not—it is just fun to listen or in this case, read.
Many of those who ride the buses in Jerusalem escaped the horrors of Eastern Europe and it was on a bus that I saw a person’s arm with a number tattooed on it for the first time. Their stories tend to be heart breaking and we become aware how much that their past has affected their lives. We hear stories of survival in Israel and we remember that the city is one of the powder kegs of the world and we hear funny stories of day-to-day experiences. We even hear Bible stories from the religious riders.
To give you an idea about the length of the stories, imagine twenty-one stories on only 105 total pages. I felt like I do when I go to a restaurant that only serves tapas and you need to order several in order to get the sense that you are having a real meal. They do not take long to eat but at the end your appetite is sated.
The way Jerusalem is built, we see that it is a city of neighborhoods with each neighborhood being home to a certain kind of people so that riding the bus to Geula or Mea Sha’arim will provide different stories and those based upon religion and faith than riding to the Jaffa Gate or to Ramat Rachel where we might hear stories of Arab/Israeli coexistence or what it is to tend to chickens on a kibbutz.
As much fun as the stories are, Birstein deserves all the credit as the person who shares the stories that he heard. He has a wonderful sense of irony and he knows just how much to tell. There were moments that I was eavesdropping on some very private moments but was unable to stop reading (we’ve all had that feeling) and as I came to last story, I realized that I wanted more. It is amazing just how much someone will say to a stranger yet we also feel that via the stories, Birstein had created his own little family of storytellers—people he heard from just once and whom he probably would never see again. This is just one of the ironies we get here. “And So is the Bus” is also a wonderful picture of Jerusalem since we see the cities through the eyes of those who live there (and have something to say about it). While the stories really have nothing in common with each other content-wise, they do give us a sense of the city— one that we would ordinarily not get.