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What Happened: November 23, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Strategic oil reserves; Ukraine; Philip Roth’s belly button

The Scroll
November 23, 2021

The Big Story

There’s less than meets the eye in Presiden Biden’s decision to release 50 million barrels of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The move, announced Tuesday, was coordinated with the U.K., China, Japan, India, and South Korea in an effort to curb rising energy prices and challenge the policies set by the oil-producing countries of OPEC+. The new policy comes after House Democrats on Monday released a letter urging Biden to tap into the strategic oil exports reserves and implement a partial export ban. The idea was to bring prices down, tame inflation, and score a political win for Democrats, for whom support has plummeted in recent polls. One problem with the White House policy is that the oil reserves will be auctioned to the highest bidder among competing international oil firms, and much of it, as Bloomberg Business reports, will likely be shipped to China and India. Another flaw, according to energy sector insiders, is that it’s simply not enough to significantly impact global pricing dynamics. Finally, there’s the risk that OPEC+ nations could hit back by tightening up their supply and releasing less oil into the global market, causing prices to rise even higher. It doesn’t help in this case that the United States has been on hostile terms with Saudi Arabia, which is not only a nominal ally that’s now seen as an impediment to a new nuclear deal with Iran but also a key OPEC+ nation and leading producer of crude oil. Markets responded to the announcement Tuesday by boosting oil prices 3% to a one-week high.

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Today’s Back Pages: The Mystery of Philip Roth’s Belly Button Solved at Last!

The Rest

→ Aduhelm, a recently approved Alzheimer’s drug with known links to brain swelling and brain bleeding as possible side effects, is under increased scrutiny after a 75-year-old woman who was taking the drug as part of a clinical trial died after her brain swelled. In three other cases between July and September, people taking Aduhelm reported having brain side effects that required hospitalization. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug, produced by pharmaceutical company Biogen, in June, despite numerous objections from senior FDA officials and members of an outside advisory committee who warned of serious risks and questioned whether the drug provided any benefits. At least three members of the advisory committee resigned over the approval process for the drug. 

→Both U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence officials say that Russia is preparing to attack Ukraine early in 2022. Roughly Russian 100,000 troops have massed on Ukraine’s border. That’s a large enough force for a land invasion supported by air attacks and indirect fire, but it’s not clear, even if Russia is planning to attack Ukraine, that it would take such a direct approach. Over the past decade, in Crimea, Ukraine, and in other conflicts, Moscow has shown a propensity for lower-intensity “hybrid warfare” utilizing psychological operations and unconventional forces.

→Let’s check in on the state of American universities, shall we? The American Studies Association, known for being an influential and trend-setting force in academia, just published the agenda for its next annual conference, to be held at a New Orleans Hilton in 2022, and … well, it reads like a piece of slam poetry written by an overstimulated high school sophomore high on cheap weed and Adderall. Sample lines: “The roof, the roof, the roof … You know the rest, or you should. The structure will not hold very long. It wasn’t meant for us anyway. Touch the beat, move without instruction, abandon your isolation. We’ve held onto it too long.” It gets better: “The scorched and scorching room in which we will gather holds many possibilities. May all who enter be prepared to let the muthafucka burn.” Oh, professor, you’re so brave and cool. Definitely worth $100,000 a year to learn the more pretentious version of the chants you already know from the third-grade school bus.
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→Jury deliberations began Tuesday in the trial for the three men involved in killing Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old who was shot to death while unarmed last year in Georgia. Arbery was pursued by three men who saw him jogging away from a construction site that they say they believe he had burgled. Prosecutors say that the three defendants in the case, Gregory McMichael, 65, his son Travis McMichael, 35, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52, who are all white, pursued and killed Arbery because he was black. Lawyers for the defendants claim they were trying to make a legal citizen’s arrest.

→Days before Thanksgiving, the average cost of turkey in the United States is up almost 24% from last year. General supply chain issues are clearly part of the problem, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren believes that anticompetitive practices are also causing the price spike, and on Monday she urged the Department of Justice to investigate the poultry industry. “I ask that you open a broad investigation into the impact of price-fixing, wage-fixing, and consolidation in the poultry industry on consumers and farmers,” Warren said in a statement.

→Writing for the British newspaper The Telegraph, Lord Jonathan Sumption, a historian and former member of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, questions the endless COVID-19 lockdown measures in Europe that seem to have lost all touch with science and human life. This excerpt from the article was first highlighted by The Daily Skeptic.

Across Europe, basic norms of civilised society are giving way to panic. The unvaccinated are being excluded from an ever-wider range of basic rights. Austria has criminalised them. Italy has stopped them doing their jobs. The Dutch police have fired on anti-lockdown demonstrators, seriously injuring some of them. We are witnessing the ultimate folly of frightened politicians who cannot accept that they are impotent in the face of some natural phenomena.

If lockdowns, forced closures of businesses and other brutal countermeasures work, then why are these countries on their fifth wave of the pandemic and their third or fourth lockdown? How long must this go on before we recognise that these measures simply push infections into the period after they are lifted?

The logic of persisting with them now is that they can never be lifted. What were once justified as temporary measures to hold the position until vaccines were available are in danger of being forced on people as permanent changes to their way of life. Perhaps the ugliest feature of the crisis is the politicians’ habit of blaming others for the bankruptcy of their own policies.

→With more details in from Waukesha, Wisconsin, it appears that Darrell Brooks Jr., who drove a car into a Christmas parade, killing five people and injuring at least 48 others, was speeding away from a domestic dispute that had occurred moments earlier. Brooks was out on $1,000 bail for domestic abuse charges from earlier this month that included allegedly running over the mother of his child with his car.

→With fertility rates at a record low in the United States, a new Pew survey shows that a growing number of adults without children are saying they don’t want to have kids: 44% of people between 18 and 49 say they’re unlikely to ever have children, a seven-point increase since 2018.
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The Back Pages

backpages The Mystery of Philip Roth’s Belly Button Solved at Last!

In Out of the Fog, historical detective Brian Berger digs through newspaper columns, clippings, and other clues to bring readers the fascinating, scandalous, and forgotten tales of the past. In this installment: The Mystery of Philip Roth’s Belly Button Solved at Last!

Whatever one’s feelings about the controversies of Philip Roth’s life and afterlife, his 1993 novel, Operation Shylock, is undoubtedly among his greatest works. And though it is less certain, I’d argue that Shylock is also the author’s most intensely Jewish book, not least for its evocation of Moishe Pipik, an elusive character or epithet from our collective Yiddishkeit past whom no known writer—in any language—had so fully considered before.

Operation Shylock begins in January 1988. The book’s narrator—the writer Philip Roth—has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown he ascribes to side effects from prescription sleeping pills, and is soon to fly to Jerusalem to interview his real-life friend, Aharon Appelfeld, celebrated author of the Holocaust novel Badenheim 1939. Before Roth departs, however, he learns that another Philip Roth has just made headlines in Israel. This Roth, posing as the writer, whom he physically resembles, has somehow met with Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, as the self-appointed exponent of diasporism—an anti-Zionist proposal rejecting Israel as a Jewish homeland in favor of resettling diasporic Jews in the European nations from which they’d fled. (“Poland without Jews is unthinkable,” said a receptive Walesa afterward. “Poland needs Jews and Jews need Poland.”)

Set against the Nazi war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian-born Ohio auto plant worker accused of being the Treblinka death camp guard “Ivan the Terrible,” and the tail end of the first Palestinian Intifada, Operation Shylock follows Roth the writer’s efforts to negotiate these conflicting realities while also attempting to vanquish—or at least reach a settlement with—Roth the diasporist.

It’s in Chapter 4, titled “Jewish Mischief,” that the writer gives his doppelganger nemesis another name: Moishe Pipik. Literally it means “Moses Bellybutton,” a character straddling the line between folklore and ethnic epithet, ripe with pranksterish meanings. Fraud or not, Roth the diasporist is no simple foe. Pipik might, as he’ll come to vehemently insist, even be a friend.

But while I evangelized the Operation Shylock, recommending it even to Roth skeptics with lines like, “If you’re into The Confidence Man or Gravity’s Rainbow or Nick Tosches …” I lost track of the mysterious Pipik.

Until, all but lost within my own ragged history, the phantom of Roth’s mind and belly button returned this past February, most unexpectedly. It happened when the beloved Beatnik poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti died at the age of 101. While most obituaries mentioned his most popular work, 1958’s A Coney Island of the Mind, few noted the source of its deathless title: Brooklyn boy Henry Miller’s 1936 novel, Black Spring. Though I’d reread it many times before, always in awe of Miller’s virtuoso attunement to the streets, now something else startled me. There, in “Into The Nightlife …”— the very chapter from which Ferlinghetti found his title—was:

“Moishe Pippik, the lemon dealer, fowled with pigeons, breeding purple eggs in his vest pocket …”

What?! How could it be??! Minor differences in transliteration and spelling mean nothing compared to the discovery that Miller knew Moishe Pipik first, even if it was only in passing. Did the veritable army of Roth scholars know this? Apparently not, I learned. So I undertook the investigation myself, a search to find other Pipiks. A brief survey follows.


In 1946, New York Jewish singer Benny Bell—born Benjamin Samberg in 1906—released a 78 RPM record with his songs “Moishe Pipick” on one side and “In The Subway” on the other. Performed in a mixture of Yiddish and English, they await translation but can be heard in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries Mayrent Collection of Yiddish Recordings.

In 1947, a Cuban guidebook included a display ad for Moishe Pipik, “The Only American Jewish Kosher Restaurant,” in Havana, whose proprietress was Mrs. Raizel Wainstein. “Our specialty: Gefilte fish, Gefilte Kishke, Apple Strudel.” A few years later, a correspondent for Jewish Frontier magazine described Wainstein as “a formidable woman from Poland who puts a ‘Mrs.’ in front of her name instead of Spanish ‘Sra.’ and speaks the purest New York Yiddish. She never set foot in the United States but offers you shtikele boiled chicken as naturally as if her establishment was on Delancey Street.”

In June 1953, Anna Levy, an 85-year-old Jewish great-grandmother, was robbed and stabbed to death in her Lower East Side apartment at 188 Norfolk Street. Three young men, all of Puerto Rican heritage, were soon arrested and convicted of first-degree murder, including Concepcion Estrada Correa. When Correa—who’d been the group’s rooftop lookout, hadn’t entered Levy’s home, and spoke no English—appealed, it was claimed his statements to police had been mistranslated, though the arresting officer, Detective Henry Murcia, was himself Spanish fluent. During the trial, Murcia was questioned about Levy, whom he knew from his time as a neighborhood beat cop.
Q: And she [Levy] told you that?
A: No, she spoke Jewish.
Q: And you don’t know whether she spoke English?
A: I don’t believe she spoke English. She called me Moishe Pipik.


On his 1957 Capitol Records album, Mish Mosh, klezmer comedy hero Mickey Katz did a version of “You Belong to Me.” Originally a country ballad, it had been a 1952 pop hit for crooner Jo Stafford and was now a standard. As the indefatigable Michael Wex noted in Born to Kvetch, Katz’s lyrics were somewhat different:

You’ll love it in the South Pacific,
Some enchanted evening with Moyshe Pipik


In Harvey Jacobs’ 1975 novel, Summer on a Mountain of Spices, set in the Jewish Catskills during World War II, two newlyweds are having a playful soap fight in the shower when the husband, Beryl Blitz, says, “Marry me, little fish.” Answers the bride, Thelma, “You, Moishe Pipik? Never.”
In the novel’s extensive glossary, which acknowledges the authority of Leo Rosten’s The Joy of Yiddish, pipik is defined as a “chicken’s navel.” Moishe Pipik is “a Yiddish jerk, a fool.”


Which Moishe Pipik is real? The answer, I believe, is all of them. Or, as the aged but fiercely lucid Israeli intelligence officer Smilesburger asserts in what might be Operation Shylock’s single greatest soliloquy, “Inside every Jew there is a mob of Jews … Is it any wonder that the Jew is always disputing? He’s a dispute, incarnate!”

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