Who is Moishe Pipik? (Take 1)

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Growing up, I heard the term pipik thrown around by my father’s best friend (and teacher). David Kaplan  introduced himself to us as the “Son-Of-A-Maggid” (a Maggid is a Jewish storyteller who would go from town to town telling stories and teaching children).    He was a Jew (a “Yid” as he would always say) who grew up in Brooklyn and, when he turned thirteen, traveled to Upstate New York to peddle leather.  He learned how to make a deal and he taught my father how to do the same.  The main lesson, for Kaplan, was that one can’t make a deal if one doesn’t know how to tell a joke and a captivating story to compliment it.  Oftentimes, he would slide in dirty jokes about pipiks.  Whenever he said the name, he would start laughing nervously.  My father used to imitate everything Dave did.  I can remember how, at a certain point, my father would say the word “pipik” and start laughing.  The very sound of it made him laugh.

When I asked him what it was (I must have been eight or nine when I did), my father pointed gestured at his penis.  But a “pipik” is not a penis; it’s a “bellybutton.”

And Moishe Pipik is the nickname of the “other” Philip Roth in Philip Roth’s postmodern novel Operation Shylock.   In the novel Philip Roth, the writer, meets up with his doppelganger who, he learns, is going around Israel stirring up trouble in his name.  Moishe Pipick is a “mischief maker.”   He is, for the Jewish-American literature scholar Andrew Furman, the crown of the “mischief making tradition” (which I discussed in yesterday’s blog entry).  Is he a schlemiel?  Can a schlemiel be a “mischief maker”?  Or is this kind of foolishness the other side of the schlemiel who is, in general, an innocent character?

Moishe Pipik brings together Moses (the most significant character in the entire Jewish tradition who, as Maimonides notes, is the “greatest of all prophets”) with the Pipick, a bellybutton (the most insignificant part of the body; as opposed to the circumcised penis which, for the Jewish tradition, is associated with the covenant between man and God sealed by Abraham).

As Derek Royal points out in his essay for Shofar on Roth entitled “Texts, Lives, and Bellybuttons: Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock and the Renegotiation of Subjectivity,” this term is a “name that the Roth family used to designate a ridiculous, funny, but nonetheless innocuous character – significantly enough, one that isn’t real – and it gets its effect from being two dissimilar antithetical words yoked together: Moses, the law-given, juxtaposed to bellybutton, a purposeless anatomical mark”(61).

While Moses (Moishe) is associated with law and words, the Pipik is associated, by Roth, with the “Philip that is not words.”    One Philip Roth is drawn toward Moses, the other toward the Bellybutton.

Royal suggests that we think of the bellybutton (the Pipik) in terms of ethnic origins.  After all, the bellybutton bears the trace of connection to the mother.  However, as Royal argues it is “a remnant of the origin that leads nowhere and is nothing more than a meaningless trace.”  To support his claim, Royal cites Roth’s definition of the “Pipik”:

The pipik is the silliest, blankest, stupidest watermark that could have been devised for a species with a brain like ours.  It might as well have been the omphalos at Delphi given the enigma the pipik presented.  Exactly what was your pipik trying to tell you?  Nobody could every really figure it out. You were left with only the word, the delightful playword itself, the sonic prankishness of the two syllabic pops and the closing click encasing those peepingly meekish, unobtrusively shlemielish twin vowels.

Royal reads this against the meaning of circumcision, which “acknowledges a male individual’s place within an ethnic community.”  Following Roth’s Zuckerman, Royal calls circumcision a “unifying act.”  This suggests that the bellybutton is a disunifying act.  And it moves, Royal tells us, from the “modernist focus on origin and depth to the postmodern privileging of surface and dissemination.  He has moved from souls to bellybuttons”(61).

But it is not simply a surface.  Royal likens it to a “scar of identity” which “no more determines the self than do authorized or fixed notions of Jewishness.”  In other words, Royal reads Moishe Pipik in terms of a struggle with Jewish identity.  In this novel, it is a struggle between one Philip Roth and another.  But this is not a duality.  Their identities efface each other and, for Royal, indicate a plurality of Jewish identities. This pluruality is, for Roth, what defines Jewishness. The strife between Jew and Jew is the product of such a plurality.  The evidence for this can be found in one of the character’s discourses (Smilesburger’s) on Jewish identity.  Each Jew, for him, contains a multitude, a “mob of Jews.”

The divisiveness is not just between Jew and Jew – it is within the individual Jew.  Is there a more manifold personality in the world?  I don’t say divided.  Divided is nothing.  Even the goyim are divided.  But inside every Jew there is a mob of Jews.  The good Jew, the bad Jew. The new Jew, the old Jew.  The lover of Jews, the hater of Jews. The friend of the goy, the enemy of the goy.  The arrogant Jew, the wounded Jews.  The pious Jew, the rascal Jew….Is it any wonder that the Jew is always disputing?  He is a dispute, incarnate. (334)

Royal is right to read Roth’s Moishe Pipik in terms of this plurality.  It makes sense.  I just want to add that Royal overlooks the schlemiel above.  As Roth notes in the above-mentioned passage, the word Pipik has a schlemielish* sound to it:

You were left with only the word, the delightful playword itself, the sonic prankishness of the two syllabic pops and the closing click encasing those peepingly meekish, unobtrusively shlemielish twin vowels.

Pipik is a “delightful playword” that has a “sonic prankishness to it.” It is also “peepingly meekish, unobtrusively schlemielish.”  In other words, we see from this that Roth associates the “Jewish mischief” of Moishe Pipik with the schlemiel.  But the twist is that the sounds may be “prankish” but they are also “peeplingly meekish.”  These latter words offset the “sonic prankishness” of Moishe Pipik.  Roth’s schlemiel is plural and we can see this from his words describing the word “pipik,” which are plural.

Pipik sounds both aggressive and passive.  And by joining the word Pipik to Moishe, it brings postmodern Jewishness to the reader.  Taken together, we have law and comic lawlessness, together.  But they are not alone.  And one doesn’t reject the other; Moishe and Pipik live side-by-side. Like the “mob of Jews” inside every Jew, they are “dispute incarnate.”

But, I might add, the schlemiel with his Pip-ik turns conflict into something Jewish and comical rather than something Greek and tragic. The mischief of the schlemiel operates to open up Jewishness to the “mob of Jews” that all Jews carry within them.

To be continued….

*Note that Roth spells “schlemiel” with an “h,” he’s taking on the  European rather than its American spelling. And perhaps this indicates that the tradition he is drawing on is one that begins in Europe and makes its way to America (and into Roth’s contemporary post-Holcaust Jewish-American fiction).

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