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.

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