Sherry Leffert of Cambridge, Mass., writes:
“My friends and I were watching the Yiddish film ‘Amerikaner Shadkhen,’ in which the expression ‘Moishe Pupik’ occurs. We all had heard of him but wondered how the name and expression originated. Can you enlighten us?”
I can hazard an educated guess. For the benefit of those readers who do not know the expression, however, a few words of explanation are called for. To call someone a “Moishe Pupik” in Yiddish is to accuse him of being aggravatingly or comically self-important. In a passage on this epithet (spelled “Moishe Pipik,” as it was pronounced by Yiddish speakers in much of Poland and Ukraine) in his novel “Operation Shylock,”Philip Roth, remembering it from his New Jersey childhood, writes:
“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.”
Roth’s take on this name is that it has to do with the inherent comicality of the bellybutton or pupik (the word is Slavic; compare Russian pupok andPolish pepek), “all the more rapturously ridiculous for being yoked to Moishe, to Moses, which signaled, even to small and ignorant boys… a strong predisposition to think of even the supermen of our tribe as all kind of imminently pathetic. The goyim had Paul Bunyan and we had Moishe Pipik.”
Yet just as it is not impossible that somewhere in the pioneer American West there was a real Paul Bunyan whose exploits provided the kernel of the mythological stories that later came to be told about him, so a real Moishe Pupik may have existed at one time, too. In fact, at least one real Moishe Pupik did exist, although there is no reason to associate him with the Yiddish expression. Here is an account, taken from a memoir about his native shtetl of Horodenka, in Eastern Galicia, by Dr. Hirsh Blutal-Prifer:
“In Horodenka, not many Jews were known by their family name. Almost every Jew had a name added on the basis of who he was. For example, the teacher of young schoolchildren was called Moshe Pupik, or Moshe the Stomach; Menashe the Goy was the teacher of older children; and Mordechai Pupik was the name given to the brother of Moshe Pupik…. The teachers Moshe and Mordechai were very heavy men and so were called Pupik.”
It is noteworthy that, as a boy in Horodenka, Blutal-Prifer does not seem to have known the expression “Moishe Pupik” as we know it today. The melamed was called that not because he put on inappropriately grand airs, but because he had a big stomach, and he shared the name with his brother. Although I do not know whether pupik was used synecdochically for stomach elsewhere in
Eastern Europe, in the area of Horodenka it obviously was and could be applied as an epithet to anyone who was fat or overweight. In the Yizkor or Memorial Book for the shtetl of Zablotov, which was very near Horodenka, we find a Khone Pupik, who was presumably given that name for the same reason.
Was there an actual Moishe Pupik who did put on airs and therefore made his name proverbial? This is something, I fear, that we will never know. It should be kept in mind that Moshe (or Moishe, or Meyshe, or Mishe, depending on one’s Yiddish pronunciation) was an extremely common name among Jews that lent itself to more than one such expression.
Thus, we have “Moishe Groys” or “Moishe Big,” an epithet close to “Moishe Pupik” in meaning but less teasing and more derogatory in tone; “Moishe Kapporeh,” a worthless good-for-nothing (from the idiom darfn af kappores — to need something like a hole in the head — a kapporeh being the sacrificial chicken slaughtered in atonement for one’s sins before Yom Kippur); “Moishe Kapoyr,” someone who does everything backward or in a contrary fashion (kapoyr meanstopsy-turvy or in reverse); “Moishe Tuchis” or “Moishe Rear End,” an ordinary Jew whom life kicks around, and “Moishe Mekhuyev,” a person who lives off favors or patronage (from Hebrew meh.uyav, “obliged to” [someone else]). It would have been perfectly natural, therefore, to coin the epithet “Moishe Pupik” for someone too big for his britches even if there had been no real-life model by that name.
So a bit of enigma remains, as it did for Philip Roth the child. “Exactly what was your pipik trying to tell you?” he asks. “Nobody could ever really figure it out. You were left with only the word, the delightful play-word itself, the sonic prankishess of the two syllabic pops and the closing click encasing those peepingly meekish, unobtrusively schlemielish vowels.”
Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.