Who is Moishe Pipik? (Take 2)


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.

Who is Moishe Pipik? (Take 1)


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).