Yosef Zinman doesn’t require a scale to determine the exact weight of a wedge of cheese. A robust second-generation grocer, he knows what his customers buy and what they would never buy. He is at home behind the counter in northern Tel Aviv and on the twice-yearly trips he and his wife make to Europe.
Yirmi Pinkus’ “Petty Business” (Syracuse University Press), translated by Evan Fallenberg and Yardenne Greenspan, is set in the 1990s in a tight-knit Tel Aviv neighborhood along the Yarkon River, where the main street is named Judah the Maccabee. The two- and three-story buildings were built in the 1950s when the streets were first paved and businesses like Zinman’s grocery opened. Now the sons and daughters of the pioneering European-born shopkeepers are running the show, just as the neighborhood is becoming more upscale. Zinman’s long-standing customers are moving and passing away, and he notices as neighbors rush by with supermarket bags.
The complicated and intimate family story involves a scheme by Zinman’s wife to get her sister, who runs a less successful perfumery across the street, and the rest of the family to join them on vacation in the mountains in Austria. Tzippi Zinman, who runs fashion shows with knock-off fashions for workers unions, launches her sister into her own business selling low-price surfing pants at a kibbutz-run water park.
Pinkus is an original talent, whose work is funny, compassionate and finely etched. While his books have won several prestigious awards in Israel, this is his American debut.
“Petty Business” was short-listed for the 2013 Sapir Prize (when it was published in Hebrew) and awarded the 2014 Literary Prize by the Israel Institute. His first novel, “Professor Fabrikant’s Historical Cabaret,” won the Sapir Prize for Debut Literature. And in 2010, he was awarded the Israeli Prime Minister’s Award for his achievements as an author of fiction and graphic novellas.
Pinkus was born in Tel Aviv and raised in a grocery shop that was run by his grandmother, and then his father and uncle, on Judah Maccabee Street. Growing up, he worked there, as did all members of the family. It was the center of their family, he says. It closed seven years ago, as the street has grown more fashionable and many of the small family businesses that existed for decades have been shuttered, replaced by chain stores and fancier businesses. The family grocery shop, now a toy store, was still open when the book was published in 2012. Last month I met Pinkus, not far from where it stood for 55 years.
“It’s still the only corner where I feel really at home,” he says.
Pinkus is a comics artist turned novelist, and his writing is very rich in earthy, visual detail. “Text and image are connected,” he says. “I can’t separate them from my own passion as an artist. I am trained to look.”
His characters — a mix of his actual relatives — grab the readers’ affections: Even if one doesn’t admire their habits, it’s hard not to like them and root for them. Depicted in full color are the two sisters and their husbands, their children, a “tiny, dignified crone” of an aunt “shrouded in a cloying scent,” a bachelor brother, a disabled sister and the legacies of their dead parents; the confidences shared, resentments stored away, insider jokes and private worlds invaded. “In the theater company called ‘family,’ the roles had been assigned years ago and had never changed,” he writes.
The title in Hebrew, “Bi’zer Anpin,” translates as “on a miniature scale” or miniscule. He explains that he chose it as everything in the novel is a miniscule model of a larger entity, like Tel Aviv is to Europe, or the tacky clothing the sisters sell to the world of fashion, their petty business to grand enterprise. He drew the book cover.
While Pinkus has been a political cartoonist for newspapers, he is not making political statements in his fiction, “I want people to have fun, to laugh, to cry a little. I also borrowed from Yiddish literature the artistic idea of tragicomedy.”
As a child he heard a lot of Yiddish and studied it as an adult, covered Yiddish theater as a journalist and, these days, attends a weekly class in Yiddish literature.
“I came to understand that Yiddish is an alternative to the aggressiveness of Israeli culture. After the murder of Rabin, I was really depressed, upset with the shallowness of discourse. Yiddish became a refuge, an identity that suits me well, Jewish not in religious ways but cultural.”
He has come to see Yiddish as being a torch to his Hebrew, bringing new richness and another life to the Hebrew language.
“Petty Business” was written mostly in Paris on a writing grant. He had already done a lot of interviewing and research to get the characters right. He did a lot of walking — which itself is an inspiring creative endeavor for him — and then chose a café where he’d be unnoticed, surrounded by human activity and voices, and wrote.
Pinkus has been drawing and publishing booklets and books since he was a child. After serving in the IDF, he studied visual communications at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and then began working as an illustrator and opera critic. In the mid-1990s he edited the Israeli version of Mad magazine, and later founded, with comics artist Rutu Modan, the independent comics group Actus. While working on a large graphic novel, he realized that the script was too enormous to draw, so it became his first novel, “Professor Fabrikant’s Historical Cabaret,” about a Jewish theater troupe in Romania in the 1930s.
“Then I fell in love with writing,” he says.
In 2013, Pinkus, who teaches illustration and text at Shenkar College of Art, Engineering and Design in Tel Aviv, co-founded with Modan a publishing house specializing in comics for preschoolers, Noah Books. He illustrated stories in rhyme by the celebrated early Israeli poet and playwright Lea Goldberg for the book “My Fibber the Storyteller,” which was awarded a prize by the Israel Museum.
He lives with his partner and their 5-year old son in Tel Aviv. He has published a third novel, a collection of novellas about relationships between people in Tel Aviv, inspired by Henry James. He’s now finishing his fourth novel.
“Petty Business” was adapted for the stage by Gesher Theater, starring Israeli actress Rivka Michaeli. He recounts bringing all of his family members to the gala premiere of the play; they got to meet with the actors and toast them. After seeing the show, his mother said, “It’s about us, but it’s not us.”