That unforgettable summer in 1980s Israel
When a writer is motivated by empathy rather than sarcasm, his humor has the power to reach deep into the heart. A look at Yirmi Pinkus' tale of an extended family of shop owners in 1980s Israel.
Biza’ir Enfin (Petty Business)
by Yirmi Pinkus. Am Oved (Hebrew), 310 pages,
The pleasure of reading of “Petty Business” stems from the simple fact that one becomes completely absorbed in the words of a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing. Yirmi Pinkus’ command of language and plot is sophisticated, surprising and self-assured; he thoroughly deserves the fun he’s having.
Pinkus’ first book, the top-notch “Professor Fabrikant’s Historical Cabaret,” published in Hebrew in 2008, was slightly marred by an excess of ambition.
“Petty Business” marks a decisive literary victory, a real celebration. And what a party it is! This book is ironic and extremely funny, with no holds barred. It’s been a long time since I read a book that made me laugh out loud. Its humor blends the precise observations of Philip Roth, the grotesque wildness of Hanoch Levin and the sharp melancholy of Ephraim Kishon. And while I have a hunch that these three writers influenced Pinkus, he doesn’t imitate them; he has created − in his own voice − a humorous novel that is motivated by empathy rather than sarcasm and manages to be both entertaining and deeply moving.
It took a hefty amount of courage to write “Petty Business” in a literary landscape exhausted by the effort of drawing a favorable portrait of Israeli society, its twists and turns and moral choices. Contemporary Israeli literature tends to stick to familiar territory: pretentious melodramas about relationships, heroic stories of masculine friendship tested for loyalty and strength, attempts to rewrite the Jewish past and gravely point to its complexity and mystery. There’s very little room for humor in these three veins of literary writing, which are sometimes entwined. They are concerned with the poetics of victimhood − personal, familial or social. This is considered serious, respectable Israeli literature, whose importance and rigidity Pinkus mocks and to which he provides an alternative.
Not that all is coming up roses in the lives of the Zinneman and Saltzman families, who live in north Tel Aviv in the 1980s, when the book is set, a time before “Tzfonim,” literally “Northerners,” became a catchword for well-off liberals. These two branches of a lower-middle-class clan of Polish-Jewish descent struggle to make a living. One of the families operates a dusty perfume store handed down by the previous generation, while the other owns a small neighborhood grocery store on the other side of the street. Both have their sights set on the object of their desires: to take a vacation together to a small hotel in the mountain village of Seefeld, Austria. There, they intend to stuff themselves on all kinds of delicacies, dance in a restaurant and hike among waterfalls. Their eyes are lifted toward a peaceful and temperate Europe, far away from diminishing livelihoods, heat waves and terror attacks.
There are several obstacles to be overcome first. They have to raise the money for the trip and avoid their worst enemy − the income tax inspector. The energetic Tzipi Zinneman thinks up a great plan. She makes her living in an organization that stages events for unions − including fashion shows, dinners, bingo and, primarily, clothing stalls that stock the schmattes modeled on a makeshift runway at these events. These fashion shows make a great impression on the crowds, who regularly rush to buy the clothes they’ve just seen. Tzipi convinces her sister, Devorah Schlossman, to sell T-shirts and surfing shorts imprinted with palm trees at one of the stands. Devorah and her nephew, a young but seasoned operator nicknamed Fat Tuvia, enter the “world of business,” which reaches the height of glory at such an event at the Shefayim water park.
Yet another hurdle on the way to Austria is the complicated relationships among family members, which are characterized by profound feelings of shared fate, but also exploitation, envy and insult.
Pinkus is a whiz at describing the experience of Ashkenazi small-business owners toiling in city-center shops that will disappear within a few years in favor of giant, anonymous chain stores. A nearly extinct and derided species, they don’t carry on their backs the burden of nation-building or the scars of the Holocaust − they just ask for a few small daily comforts, such as fresh sponge cake and regular bowel movements.
Pinkus also has a good ear. Relationships within the family are conducted with well-worn Yiddish-inflected phrases: “It’s not my husband, it’s appendicitis”; “Who knows if I’ll live that long”; “Nu, what did you expect?”; “May I be eaten by worms if I’m lying, and they should have a good appetite.”
The account books of this tiny business enterprise serve as a balance sheet for family relations. The emotional tone of this extended family was set by the the late Hinda Schlossman, mother to Tzipi Zinneman and Devorah Schlossman, who went around all her life with a look on her face of someone who’d been done a terrible injustice; the rest of the family constantly attempted to make up for this. “When [her husband] fell into bed at night, he didn’t dare ask for even a glass of water,” writes Pinkus. “One quick glance at her sour puss was enough for him to understand that his future widow was close to collapse from all her burdens. Avramele, the oldest son, got a low grade in the history of the Hasmoneans, and Hinda went around as insulted as though she were hizzoner Yohanon Horkanos himself. Her daughters managed to save a few pennies to buy her a blue chiffon scarf for Mother’s Day; Hinda gave them a sour smile (again they forgot that green was more flattering to her!) and never wore it, not even once.”
In this way, amid a simmering family stew of pursed-lip acidity, unconditional obligation and an absence of affection, the two families must deal with the strange birds in their midst: Avramele, the confirmed bachelor brother and something of a dandy; Aunt Masha, a wizened and birdlike old woman, who is also menacing and gluttonous; Bina, who is mentally disabled and mistreated. These wonderfully flawed characters want to gorge themselves on − or simply get a small taste of − the steaming meal called life.
Outside, it is the end of the 1980s: shoulder pads, Israeli model Tami Ben-Ami, canned goods on credit, grab as much as you can. The description of Shefayim Water Park, where the family business reaches its heights, is a precise summary of the economics of Israeli pleasure. The sweaty and excited vacationers surge into the park in unruly lines, shoving and being shoved, their eyes narrowed and expectant as the first of them burst onto an empty lawn that will soon be trampled. And the moment each family conquers its own patch of grass amid the water rides, it becomes a valuable private domain, a homeland and a stronghold that must be guarded constantly, and perhaps enlarged a bit when the neighboring family takes a dip in the pool. Blankets are spread out, coolers scattered, slippery children moan about being subject to the application of suntan lotion, and someone is sent off to the food stand. Clothes are shed, scarves are hastily wrapped around the hips of the well-oiled and pale-faced, loudspeakers blare and flies buzz in the scorching heat. Now the fun begins!
The Zinneman and Saltzman families fight over their right to experience the pleasures of life, however brief or artificial they may be. Their dreams are modest; just before chain supermarkets and big-box stores defeat them, they fight for some relief, scramble to make a few more agorot, and aspire to a fantastic “luxury” vacation together. I restricted myself to reading just a few pages a day, so I could stretch out the joy of sharing these characters’ lives as long as possible. When I finished reading, I had a big smile on my face that refused to go away.
Literary critic Omri Herzog is a regular contributor to Haaretz Books.