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December 2018

A Warm Tale of Human Foibles

Yirmi Pinkus reconstructs a 1980s Tel Aviv Ashkenazi enclave that is replete with charming vignettes but detached from the realities it aspires to hark back to.

“Petty Business” by Yirmi Pinkus, translated by Evan Fallenberg and Yardenne Greenspan, Syracuse University Press, 264pp

(1812 words)

With his second novel Petty Business, Yirmi Pinkus creates an elaborate conceit. Along Judah the Maccabee Street in the north of old Tel Aviv, we find an intimate world of well-to-do shopkeepers who rarely venture beyond the street’s boundaries. In his fantastical world we find the Saltzmans and the Zinmans, two families united by the Shlossman sisters. Tzippi Zinman is a stylist, with a keen eye for moderately priced fashion. The louder, wealthier, and bossier of the two main protagonists, she is full of ideas and goodwill as long as she is not expected to contribute labor to an enterprise or remember a promise. By contrast, her younger sister Dvora Saltzman is modest and quiet; she takes on the sacrifices of daily life out of devotion for her family and a desire to maintain harmony between the siblings. A beautician by trade, Dvora inherited the family perfumery with a small residential apartment above; here, she cares for Bina, the youngest Shlossman sister, whose mental development ceased in childhood. Their brother Avrum, who has led a life of international mystery, is now a carefree bachelor, as glad to see his sisters visit as he is to see them leave.

Tzippi had married Yosef, the eldest son of the grocer who lived across the street in this little Tel Aviv shtetl. After inheriting the shop from his parents, he turned it into the center of local life in the neighborhood. Though its heyday passed with government rationing, Yosef Zinman’s innovations meant the shop still provided the good living that bankrolled his general munificence, two cars and two holidays a year. Chief among these pleasures is the annual visit to Seefeld, a small Austrian town which forms a constant refrain in the book’s imaginings: “…you know I’m not a person that gets worked up over nothing. So if I say it takes your breath away—I mean, AWAAAAAY!—here’s you, and there in front of you, the whole of Austria. Just like that. The forests, the mountains, the snow. Not another soul around, maybe a cow or too. But otherwise—gornisht! Nothing! And the smell of green, and the flowers. What flowers! And those little houses, and you can hear bells from far away…”

In glaring contrast to the vibrant and wealthy Zinman, Shraga Saltzman, Dvora’s husband, is an insurance agent with few clients, and the habit of whiling away his days behind the counter in Dvora’s perfumery, reading the newspaper. “Even he himself could not for the life of him remember the last policy he sold.”

While the Saltzmans and Zinmans sit together mumbling and grumbling about the lack of customers, the need for modernization, and who ate all the kishkas, Avrum Shlossman is set apart from the others, inhabiting an air of luxury that floats above the mundanities of the other characters. His apartment, with its rich heavy European furniture and decorative ornamentation nods at the culture of intellectual salons. His tastes also hint at the veiled existence of gay life in Tel Aviv in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his middlebrow family audience, whose daily grind passes in the commercial business of earning a living, imagines that such luxury can only be obtained by travel. Together, a plan is hatched for the entire family to holiday in Seefeld. To raise the funds for the trip, Tzippi comes up with a plan: with the help of Tzippi’s son “Fat” Tuvia—more brawn than brain—Dvora enters the shmattes trade. Together, Dvora and Fat Tuvia spend the summer selling brightly patterned beachwear at a popular water park where Tzippi has the commission to run a fashion show and bring local vendors. Here, busloads of workers’ unions come for their annual day out: to swim, enjoy the refreshments, marvel at the moderately priced designs on display, and buy overpriced tat from the many stalls selling cheap seasonal shmockles and shmeydries.  

 

This gentle satire of petit-bourgeois shopkeepers and their desire for international travel to a provincial Austrian village––a counterpoint to their own provincial little lives––is a warm tale of human foibles. Like a village in a Sholem Aleichem story, the lives of the residents of Judah the Maccabee Street are intertwined, either by marriage or feud; like the Yiddish stories of a bygone age, America flutters in the distance. A world beyond this little corner of Tel Aviv is hinted at through the absence of “Yellow” Tuvia, Dvora’s only child, whose nickname distinguishes him from his corpulent cousin. Now a graduate student in the United States, his infrequent letters with their requests for money put a not-inconsiderable strain on his parents’ already fragile finances. Yet it is the local and the domestic which remains the quiet center of the novel.

The story’s rhythm emerges from an accented writing, Yiddish-inflected speech patterns combining with a narrative hyperbole to heighten the sense of a tall tale––all the while eking drama from the endearing characters’ greatest fears:

A.

(…)

There was no shortage of schemes and intrigues on Judah the Maccabee Street—the reader may recall the harassment Yosef Zinman suffered over his grilled chicken—but beyond all struggles and backstabbing and rejoining in each other’s failure, there loomed a monstrous giant that made all of the petty tricks pale in comparison, a giant that cast fear over renters and landlords alike. This colossus, cruel and shrewd, filled all hearts with terror; the mere mention of its name was enough to spread panic and ignite bitter words. Those considered in the know advised their neighbors, in private, regarding means of preparation stubborn people who failed to heed warnings and innocents who belittled its power all found themselves climbing the stairs to the gallows, paying the hangman’s fees on their way. Because the neighborhood’s residents, one and all, were connected through a complex web of business, each tug at one corner tightened the neck of those in the opposite corner. The individual’s battle was destined to fail, and no choice was left but to rise above small conflicts at times of trouble and join forces against the tyrant.

On the morning of May 14, 1989, at 10.55, in spite of his age-old resentment toward all Zinmans, the latter having taken over the best of the three shops in his possession for two generations (and counting!) of key money—Old Nathan Kuttner burst into the grocery store, his eyes wide, his withered arms shaking as if possessed, and called at the top of his lungs:

B.

“The tax agents! At Yunger the butcher’s!”

 

In this provincial Ashkenazi enclave, life is a series of small daily struggles for the Saltzmans and the Zinmans; with their bowels, with their landlords, and with their efforts to evade the taxman. In a charming and gothic twist, the Zinman’s teenage daughter Shirley has aspirations to a musical career playing the saw, an affectation that would be the family’s pride if the “instrument” didn’t sound quite so awful. Thus the novel’s Tel Aviv offers a sardonic glimpse at the plebian.

The nostalgic trip into a Tel Aviv before wealth and commercialization––the enemy that lingers outside the novel’s timeline––is reminiscent of Ya’akov Shabtai’s Tel Aviv in Zikhron Devarim (Past Continuous), and foreshadows the nihilistic Tel Aviv in Etgar Keret’s HaKeytana Shel Kneller (Kneller’s Happy Campers). In the transitional moment captured by Petty Business, it seems that the old life of intimate neighborhoods and warm social communities may actually be eternal, following the historical pattern that links middle-aged middle-class Jews wherever they might be. The city is no more Tel Aviv than London, Warsaw, or New York.

 

What remains striking about this book is not what it includes but what it leaves out. Unlike Shabtai’s nostalgic vision, replete with discussions of socialism and competing streams of labor Zionism, there is little in Pinkus’s novel that animates a sense of a particular national identity. There are no references to the tensions that characterize Tel Aviv as the first Hebrew city, or as the center of Hebrew letters. The novel’s time and rhythm lack the regular punctuation of radio news broadcasts that are a central feature of Israeli life, or of the shared discourse about television programs that were prevalent in the 1980s when there was still only one national television station. In fact the fictional world’s ahistorical existence cannot be traced to the late 1980s or early 1990s as its blurb promises—despite the occasional cultural reference to surfing pants and similar—precisely because of the absence of allusions to both the Israeli and Tel Aviv realities of this period. For shopkeepers, hyperinflation in the 1980s––400% per annum in 1985—would presumably have provoked considerably more concern than the nine challah loaves left over on a Friday afternoon. It took five years of far-reaching government fiscal policy and the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union—with the consequent added demand for goods—for the economy to recover.  Moreover, it is hard to image a family sharing annual visits to Austria without any response from shop customers criticizing the travelers for visiting a country with such a recent murderous past.

Nor is there evidence of the Intifada raging in the West Bank. There seems little concern for soldiers serving on the front line of the conflict, or that Yellow Tuvia or Fat Tuvia (or their friends) might have been a part of this rite of passage. Though there is a reference to the stabbing of three Israelis during the Purim Carnival of 1989, by an Arab man shouting “God is great,” the event seems an isolated expression of personal insanity, rather than part of the larger grassroots movement and violence elsewhere in the country. The blurb also misidentifies the book taking place in the early 1990s. In fact, the majority of the narrative takes place in 1989; the difference of a year would have brought the Gulf War, and the start of the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union.

The idyllic minutiae of the book’s social vignettes, and its isolation from an outside reality is a literary affectation that seems tone deaf. It presents a petit-bourgeois Ashkenazi Israeli normativity that does not see the Mizrahi immigrants of South Tel Aviv, or the rising Palestinian consciousness that the Intifada represented. Perhaps part of Pinkus’ intent is to lightly skewer the insularity of the families and community he portrays. The narrative is undoubtedly enriched by its brilliant and tightly woven humor, its rich characterizations and the tension that comes from the concern that at any moment a terrible fate may befall the family travel plans. And these are all beautifully rendered in a translation which captures the comic turns of phrases, and defamiliarizes the speaker’s manner of communication in ways that enhance the characters’ peculiarities. But the novel’s unmoored representation of Tel Aviv’s place in history or the history of the place leaves this reader (at least) with the feeling that something profound has been missed in the story.

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