Who is Moishe Pipik? (Take 2)

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In yesterday’s blog entry I quoted a part of Philip Roth’s words on Moishe Pipik.  Here is the full quote.  It gives a sense of how the schlemiel returns to Roth’s later work (challenging Sanford Pinsker’s claim that Roth had spent his entire life trying to leave it behind).  To be sure, as I noted in the last blog entry, Moishe Pipik is the name for the “other” Philip Roth:

Moishe Pipik! The derogatory, joking nonsense name that translates literally to Moses Bellybutton and that probably connoted something slightly different to every Jewish family on our block — the little guy who wants to be a big shot, the kid who pisses in his pants, the someone who is a bit ridiculous, a bit funny, a bit childish… that little folkloric fall guy whose surname designated the thing that for most children was neither here nor there… the sole archaeological evidence of the fairy tale of one’s origins, the lasting imprint of the fetus who was somehow oneself without actually being anyone at all, just about the silliest, blankest, stupidest watermark that could have been devised for a species with a brain like ours.

The other Philip Roth poses a counter to the serious author.  He creates mischief and this speaks to Roth’s own project; which, amongst other things, provides a new language for Jewishness which we can only understand if we play Moishe Pipik’s game.  This is what Roth teaches us in a key moment in the novel when he can’t take Pipik’s mischief anymore.

In Operation Shylock, the greatest mischief of all is Moishe Pipik’s psychotic-slash-messianic idea which, in his mind, will solve the new “Jewish problem” caused by the strife between Israelis and Palestianians.  His inspired idea is the “new Diasporist movement” in which all Jews in Israel should return back to Europe. This kind of mischief sounds like the mischief of Helen Thomas.

But he truly believes – or so it seems -that this will be good for the Jews.  The author, Philip Roth, wants nothing to do with Pipick’s madness.  But when Pipik brings him to the edge, as I mentioned above, the author imitates the madness of Pipik and plays it back to him.  The author, Philip Roth, becomes the psychotic-schlemiel-messiah, Moishe Pipik.   The key is to “say everything” (no matter how extreme) and, in the process, do a little stand-up. This leads him to the new Moses and the “father of the new Diasporist Movement,” Irving Berlin:

On I went, usurping the identity of the usurper who had usurped mine, heedless of truth, liberated from all doubt, assured of the indisputable rightness of my cause – seer, savior, very likely the Jews’ Messiah. 

So this is how it’s done, I thought.  This is how they do it.  You just say everything.

No, I didn’t stop for a very long time. On and on and on, obeying an impulse I did nothing to quash, ostentatiously free of uncertainy and without a trace of conscience to rein in my raving…I was talking about Armenians, suddenly, about whom I knew nothing: “Die the Armenians suffer because they were in a Diaspora?  No, because they were at home and the Turks moved in and massacred them there.”  I heard myself next praising the greatest Diasporist of all, the father of the new Diasporist movement, Irving Berlin.  “People ask where I got the idea.  Well, I got it listening to the radio.  The radio was playing “Easter Parade” and I thought, But this is a Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments.  God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave Irving Berlin “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas”…And what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do?  He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. (157) 

What makes Berlin “the father of the new Diasporist movement” – who is on par with Moses – is that he empties Christmas of its religious content.  He secularizes them.  And this, says Roth-as-Moishe-Pipik, is the key to his schlemiel-mania.  He realizes the power of comedy to create all kinds of secular mischief.  American culture, produced by Jews like Irving Berlin, is the source of a new Diaspora in which rooted meanings and traditions (such as Christmas) are uprooted and rerouted into different popular meanings.

The key to Philip Roth’s re-invention of the schlemiel is to “never stop talking.”  But, to be sure, it is a re-invention because the schlemiel has always, as Ruth Wisse points out, talked its way out of war and conflict and into the hearts of Americans.   In other words, for Wisse, the schlemiel tradition finds its greatest moments when it addresses the political by way of talking and winning an “ironic victory.”

Philip Roth’s Moishe Pipik is also a  “political schlemiel” of sorts.  But just because the schlemiel is “political” doesn’t mean its political. Rather, the schlemiel plays with politics and the world. He knows, like Roth does when he becomes Moishe Pipik, that, in the end, it’s all just a comic performance whose main purpose is: Diaspora.  He learned this from the new Moses: Irving Berlin.  Although Roth, the author, might cringe at this, he eventually realizes that he cannot distance himself from Moishe Pipik’s mad claims.

Just as Jews throughout history couldn’t separate themselves from the implications of Moses and the Ten Commandments, now, Roth suggests, they can’t escape from the history of the “new Moses” and the “new Diaspora movement.”

But this is the simple meaning of the text. The deeper meaning is that what Roth-the-author-says-while-he-becomes-Moishe Pipik bears a secret: although Irving Berlin was the “father of the new Diaspora movement,” and may be considered the “new Moses” in Moishe Pipik’s manic-schlemiel-mind*, we can only conclude that Moishe Pipik thinks he’s the real Moses (the Messiah).

But – let’s not fool ourselves – we all know he’s a Pip-ik.

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