Matan Hermoni On:
The Letter by Yossel Birstein
Yossel Birstein was what you would call a writer’s writer—he was always there, but slightly offstage; he chose to write in Yiddish (and only in the last part of his literary career began writing in Hebrew); he touched on burning issues but not only on these issues, and what’s more, he applied elaborate literary techniques, which also demand reading skills in order to detect—and at the same time do not burden or hinder the joy of reading. Birstein is seemingly a natural storyteller. The story as if pours out of him, flows. And you need to go back and read the story again to understand what exactly he did there. After all, a story doesn’t emanate from itself; someone tells it, and someone writes it.
“The Letter” is one of Birstein’s earlier stories; it was published in 1959 in the Yiddish literary quarterly “Di Goldene Keyt”, edited by the acclaimed poet Abraham Sutzkever. Until then Birstein was a shepherd at Kibbutz Gvat, and moved to the city after publishing a novel in Yiddish about life in the kibbutz (“Narrow Paths”, 1958).
From a reality well-known to the Israeli reader—urban Israel in the fifties—emerges a world that is dark and menacing, and at the same time grotesque and funny. Reading the story evokes Israeli literary works that are perhaps more widely known, such as Appelfeld’s first stories from the sixties, and certainly Yaakov Shabtai’s stories from the early seventies. Both read Yiddish and were familiar with Birstein’s work. But Birstein was there first.