Yirmi Pinkus’ lively novel, Petty Business, vividly translated from Hebrew, is a dazzling mosaic of hilarity and heartbreak. It immerses readers in the intricate personal and business relationships between three generations of two lower-middle-class extended families, the Zinmans and the Shlossmans/Saltzmans, of Polish-Jewish lineage.
Pinkus captures the foibles of bakers, beauticians, clothing stall operators, hairstylists and grocers during an already forgotten Tel Aviv of the late 1980s. These were the twilight years of small-business owners, modest grocers the wheeler-dealers of the rag trade before the crushing onslaught of the vast international chain stores and supermarket goliaths that now dominate the Israeli landscape.
Rarely has an Israeli novelist bestowed such affection and empathic understanding on this nearly invisible sector of society, those terrified of losing their hard-won places in the world. Even though most of Pinkus’ hardscrabble, openhearted, characters recognize that life has shortchanged them, they keep at it relentlessly, with poignant hopefulness. Despite their absurdly miscalculated plots and intrigues to make ends meet, a quiet heroism permeates their struggles.
As the patriarch of one family sorrowfully observes, “How fragile is the measure of happiness available to the small-time retailer – nine loaves of challah remaining on the shelf at the end of a Friday afternoon are enough to turn a holiday into a day of mourning!”
Overall their daily trials and tribulations hovers over the pastoral dream of an idyllic vacation in Seefeld, the famous Austrian Alpine village, its lush mountains, waterfalls and wonderful drink and food so far removed from sweltering and grimy Tel Aviv.
The gifted translators ably render the wild tonal register of the original Hebrew, its tenderness as well as scatology. (These are the kinds of families whose every digestive mishap becomes the subject of endless mirth and commentary.)
Pinkus has a wonderful ear for the speech marking Israel’s ethnic and class divisions and is especially skillful in capturing the sharp Yiddishisms permeating their environment, their uproarious insults, curses and their laughter.
Petty Business is swarming with life, the cacophony of Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods captured in indelible, loving detail, larger-than-life personalities hustling for the crumbs of minute percentages, discounts and under-the-table payments; and the slight but critical distinctions that make all the difference between sinking and staying afloat enough to struggle another day.
Even as we laugh at these grasping and feuding families, they burrow deep into our hearts. It is impossible not to root for them when their modest dreams threaten to slip away.
With each new scheme plotted, long buried feelings suddenly erupting, and ripples of ribald humor and tender sadness inhabiting virtually every page, Petty Business will surely leave its readers eager for more of Pinkus’s award-winning novels to be translated.
(Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville.)
Petty Business, by Yirmi Pinkus,
translated by Evan Fallenberg & Yardenne Greenspan Syracuse UP, 2017, paperback, 258 pages $19.95