The Rules of the Tubs: The Novelist as Ethnographer

Haim Watzman

Plastic tubs have rules, Ronit Matalon told us last night at a reading at Tmol Shilshom, Jerusalem’s leading literary café. There’s the tub that’s used to soak the semolina and the tub that’s used for baths and many other tubs, and they are not interchangeable. Her new novel, The Sound of Our Footsteps, is a remembrance of childhood in a mother-led family in shack in a poor Israeli neighborhood fifty years ago. And it’s about a little girl learning the unspoken rules of female existence.

Tamar El-Or, the anthropologist who emceed the evening (and for whom I’ve translated three books), presented Matalon’s book as a piece of ethnography—the kind of material that anthropologists collect when they observe a society or culture. Novelists have much more freedom in how to present their material, El-Or noted, but fundamentally the process of observation and the act of telling are shared by the scholar and the writer. Both seek to understand and relate the rules and stories by which society operates.

The unwritten rules by which a family operates—the division of tasks, whether traditional or not; the use of spaces; the chain of command—all these must be accepted and observed by all parties if the family is to function and provide the security and sustenance that families are to provide. Of course, the rules are always being challenged, and sometimes the attempt to observe the rules in the face of challenges can lead to scenes that seem quite logical from the inside but absurd from the outside.

Such is the hilarious scene prompted when the little girls brother decides he wants fried eggs on a rainy day—when the shack’s kitchen is in the midst of being rebuilt. The rule being that the brother’s wishes are to be answered by the mother and sisters, the mother proceeds to the now open-air kitchen and prepares fried eggs while her daughter holds an umbrella over her head.

I haven’t read her new book, but Matalon’s reading was sympathetic. I doubt she accepts the role that her mother accepted, but the family she writes about clearly offered a home to the girl who is her protagonist.

I was at Tmol Shilshom with my wife, Ilana, celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary. We can’t help viewing our long and successful marriage as something of a miracle—one thing you learn in nearly a quarter of a century of life together is how delicate a relationship a good marriage is, and how easily it can go wrong. The hard, if happy, work of maintaining love, friendship, and cooperation over so many years involves fashioning and observing many unspoken rules. It also means understanding that those rules can change, but only by consensus, and only through a process of give-and-take.

Those plastic tubs—they may seem insignificant, but the rules governing them are no less important than the law of the land or the laws of nations. They are to be respected. And they are to be changed when need be, but with all due respect and with every effort to understand the purposes they serve.

3 thoughts on “The Rules of the Tubs: The Novelist as Ethnographer”

  1. what a moving post!

    i’m honored to learn that these thoughts came after an event here at tmol…

    (and as for aliyah’s comment: i find it difficult reading even such short piece in english. ..)

  2. When I want intelligent commentary about Gaza, I come here or to Christopher Hitchens website. What a coincidence! He writing about literature this week too – albiet with a more political tone.

    Anyhow, congratulations Haim on your 24th anniversary. You are one of the finest human beings I have ever met – you deserve all the best.

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