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What Would Yosl Say?
by Judy Lash Balint
March 21, 2004

A few months ago, storyteller Yosl Birstein passed away in Jerusalem. A diminutive man, with colossal charisma and talent for spinning yarns about everyday life, first in Yiddish and later in Hebrew, Birstein was the embodiment of secular Jewish culture.

Born in Poland, he fled the country for Australia in 1937. After a four year stint serving in the Australian army, Yosl met and married another Jewish refugee, Margaret Weisberg from Frankfurt. They stayed in Australia for several more years, and Yosl started writing his stories in Yiddish, for the audience of survivors who were rebuilding their lives down under.

Zionism kept nagging at the Birsteins, and eventually they made their way to Israel and settled on Kibbutz Gvat, in accordance with their socialistic ideals. Yosl continued to write, while earning his kibbutz keep as a shepherd, and his books and stories soon became popular reading amongst Israelis of European background.

The Birsteins raised two talented Israeli daughters, and moved to Jerusalem in their later years. Margaret began translating Yosl's work into English. Next week, several renowned authors will appear at an evening of remembrances and readings in honor of Yosl Birstein.

How do I know all this? Jerusalem is really just a little Jewish shtetl...on Friday I noticed the announcement of the memorial evening on a bulletin board in the neighborhood. On Shabbat I met Margaret Birstein for the first time, and realized that she lives just around the corner from me. We were both hosted by the inimitably hospitable Cohn family, whose Shabbat table is routinely graced with a minimum of 10 guests. Ruth Cohn struck up a conversation with Margaret in our local supermarket, and promptly invited her for lunch.

Across the table from Margaret sat another neighbor and author, Moshe Aumann, an expert on Jewish-Christian relations. Moshe and Margaret, who had also never met before, traded stories of schooldays in their native Frankfurt.

Jerusalem is a place where time, people and events have a tendency to coincide and resonate with meaning. Shabbat was the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon) where we recite prayers for God to grant us a month of fulfillment and blessing. Then we add, "May He who performed miracles for our forefathers, and took them from slavery to freedom, speedily redeem us and gather in our people from the four corners of the earth so that all Israel will be together in friendship." The rabbi had just welcomed a group of young olim (immigrants) from Montreal spending their first Shabbat in Israel.

This Shabbat also marked the first anniversary of the shul,Shir Hadash, which has fast outgrown its small rented building. Plastic chairs are lined up in the courtyard as the windows are thrown open, to accomodate all those who are drawn to the warmth, passion and friendliness of the community.

Walking home on Shabbat is another of those small, Jerusalem pleasures. The March sunshine, still a long way from the apex of it's summer intensity, brightens the flower-lined back streets. Dozens of people strolling in the middle of the street, on their way home or to visit friends with only a stray vehicle or two disturbing the quiet; children enjoying the small playgrounds scattered around; and the occasional stranger who will bid passers-by a "Shabbat shalom."

But, the Shabbat peace was disturbed by a tragic event that brings into sharp relief the murderous hatred of our enemies. A 20 year old Hebrew University student was shot and killed on Friday night in the French Hill neighborhood. George Khoury went out for a run, and never returned home. The Al Aksa Brigade branch of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement quickly claimed responsibility--but "apologized" when Elias Khoury, George's well-known Christian Arab father, claimed the body.

"Oh, we thought he was a Jew...."

In what should have been a damning act confirming his culpability for terror, Arafat himself called Khoury the bereaved father twice on Saturday to apologize for the mistake, and assure him that his son would be considered a martyr.

Like many Israeli families, Elias Khoury now counts two members dead at the hands of Arab terrorists. His father, Daoud was one of 14 killed on Jaffa Road in 1975 when an explosive device went off in an abandoned refrigerator.

The other chilling aspect of this latest attack is that it shatters the assumptions of many Israelis who until now have assumed that terror only strikes at crowded public places. Now the blood-lust has apparently heightened to the point where they're ready to pick us off one by one. What's next, an armed personal security guard for every citizen?

Other terror news in today's Yediot daily paper--warnings for Israelis traveling for the Pesach holiday. Over 45,000 Israelis are expected to leave the country during the Pesach break. The Prime Minister's anti-terror advisor issued a sharp warning for Israelis not to travel to two favorite destinations--Istanbul and the Sinai. Lesser alerts are posted for Thailand, India and the Philippines. But Foreign Ministry spokesmen say the panic is unwarranted and they have received no specific threats against Israelis.

Finally, in typical Israeli fashion--today, some six weeks after the 5.3 earthquake shook the country, we received nice color booklets from the Electric Company on how to prepare for an earthquake. We're told that the big one may come "tomorrow, in a month or 50 years from now.."

It's the kind of thing that Yosl Birstein would have made into a great story.