Meet our writers

 







Reflections August 2015

Got Chutzpah?

By Elayne Clift

Chutzpah well-demonstrated is an effective way to remind people that you matter and that you are not going to be ignored, objectified, trivialized, marginalized, disrespected or rendered invisible. It's a way of saying, "Don't mess with me because I've got your number!" It sends a message that you are someone to be reckoned with.

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, an optimist, a speaker of truth to power, a pain in the butt, a winner, a cool dude, a person who gets things done. And 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 have become part of the general lexicon.

Perhaps a joke will help. An old woman gets on a crowded bus and stands in front of a seated young girl. Holding her hand to her chest, she says to the girl, "If you knew what I have, you would give me your seat." The girl gives up the seat. The girl takes out a fan and fans herself. The woman looks up and says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan." The girl gives her the fan. Fifteen minutes later the woman says to the bus driver, "Stop, I want to get off here." The driver says he has to stop at the next corner, not in the middle of the block. Her hand across her chest, she says, "If you knew what I have, you would let me out here." The bus driver pulls over and opens the door letting her off. "Madam, what is it you have?" he asks. "Chutzpah," she replies.

The first time I knew I the rewards of chutzpah I was in eighth grade. In those days (as my Bubbe would say) girls had to take sewing while boys got to enjoy shop. To this day I'm good for nothing more than sewing a button back on. So having to make a piece of clothing, a nightgown in the event, 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 I struggled to thread a bobbin. As it happens, the sewing teacher was black. Next thing you know, I'm hauled into the principal's office accused of making a racist remark having to do with a nightgown. Looking directly into the face of the principal (who bore a striking resemblance to a bulldog) I said, "I never did any such thing. What I said was, “You only help the girls who like to sew.”

But I didn't stop there. Instead, I drew myself up straight and continued. "I am a minority myself, a Jew. Do you honestly think I would make nasty remarks to another minority?" The bulldog, nonplussed, stared at me. "You must apologize!" he demanded when he had gathered his wits.

"I'm sorry but I cannot apologize because I did nothing wrong," I countered. Then, in the absence of a response from my stunned superior, I turned and left the room. And that was that. Score one for chutzpah.

There have been many more incidents since then when chutzpah has held me in good stead. On my first job interview I pretended to take shorthand when in fact I was really 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, the man 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. After it happened again at Christmas I got my turkey and two bottles of wine free.

And once when I was threatened with bodily harm I fought back with impressive chutzpah and was never bothered again by the potential perp. 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 to understand 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.

More significantly, 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, objectified, trivialized, marginalized, disrespected or rendered invisible. It's a way of saying, "Don't mess with me because I've got your number!" It sends a message that you are someone to be reckoned with.

Yiddish – derived from German and Hebrew – is a marvelous language. Some of its words are so nuanced and filled with 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?

 

Elayne Goldman Clift, who displays her chutzpah regularly in her columns, lives in Saxtons River, Vermont.

Meet Elayne