It’s one of my favorite Yiddish words. Chutzpah. It means guts, balls, a touch of arrogance, courage. To be full of chutzpah is to be a risk taker, a speaker of truth to power, a pain in the butt, a winner, a cool dude, a person who gets things done. Even then, there are nuances to the word that are hard to convey whenever you try to translate Yiddish words into English, even when they’re part of the general lexicon.
A joke may help. An old woman gets on a crowded bus. Standing in front of a seated young girl hand held to her chest, she says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me your seat." The girl gives up the seat. The girl takes a fan and fans herself. The woman says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan." The girl gives her the fan. Minutes later the woman says to the bus driver, "Stop, I want to get off here." The driver says he must stop at the next corner. Hand across her chest, she says, "If you knew what I have, you would let me out here." The bus driver pulls over and lets her off. "Madam, what is it you have?" he asks. "Chutzpah," she replies.
The first time I realized I the rewards of chutzpah I was in eighth grade. In those days girls had to take sewing while boys enjoyed shop. To this day I can barely sew a button back on so having to make a nightgown was unbearably challenging, especially since the sewing teacher only helped girls who liked sewing. One day I said as much to her in a pique of frustration while struggling to thread a bobbin. The sewing teacher was black; next thing you know I’m hauled into the principal’s office accused of making racist remarks having to do with a nightgown. Stunned, I faced the principal and said, “I never did any such thing. What I said was, ‘You only help girls who like to sew.’ Then I drew myself up and continued. “I’m a minority myself. I’m Jewish. Do you think I would make nasty remarks to another minority?” The nonplussed principal stared at me. “You must apologize!” he demanded. “I’m sorry but I cannot apologize because I did nothing wrong,” I countered. Then, in the absence of a response, I left the room. And that was that. Score one for chutzpah.
There have been many more incidents since then when chutzpah held me in good stead. On my first job interview I pretended to take shorthand when in fact I was remembering what the man said before racing to the typewriter to tap the words onto paper. Later, after I had worked some months for him (and taken Speedwriting), he said, “I knew what you were doing. I figured anyone who could pull that off deserved the job!”
I’ve played the chutzpah card in Bali when a cop tried to con me out of money for a faux traffic violation, and in Chiang Mai when an optician overcharged me for glasses. Chutzpah trumped passivity when I reserved a 16-pound turkey for Thanksgiving at a well-known Washington, DC food emporium and was given a 22 pounder instead. It happened again at Christmas; I got my turkey and two bottles of wine free. The ultimate chutzpah, I suppose, is that I married a gentile man in the days when you could get disowned for such a thing.
But here’s the really important thing about chutzpah. It’s not just something you call upon for fun or to flex your muscle, and it’s not something you use solely to get what you want.
Rather, it’s a strategic way to stand up for yourself, like Gandhi did in order to free his Indian nation from British rule. It’s what you draw upon in certain circumstances so that you are not duped or diminished. Chutzpah well-demonstrated is an effective way to remind people that you matter and that you are not going to be ignored, trivialized, disrespected or rendered invisible. It’s a way of saying, “Don’t mess with me because I’ve got your number!”
Yiddish – derived from German and Hebrew – is a marvelous language. Some of its words are so filled with nuanced meaning we just couldn’t get along without them. How else can you convey the fatigue of a long schlep or the aggravation of someone else’s mishagoss? How can you describe all the joy embedded in a Mazel Tov? What better conveys a complainer than someone who qvetches endlessly?
Still, for me, chutzpah rises to the top of my limited Yiddish tongue. It serves my inner rebel, reinforces me in my convictions, and most happily of all, renders me a force to be reckoned with. Who could ask for more than that in a single word?