Just the other day, someone described me as having chutzpah, because of some small thing I said in a meeting that no one else seemed willing to say. I wasn’t sure if I was being complimented or not, or even if chutzpah was the right word for such a small thing, but the moment stuck with me.
According to Wikipedia, chutzpah is a Yiddish word meaning audacity. It has strong negative connotations, but can also be interpreted in a positive way, as courage or guts. It’s originally from the Aramaic/Hebrew root word “Chataph,” meaning insolent or impudent, and is often used to refer to someone who has overstepped the boundaries of polite behavior.
And I can see that in myself, because I’m not especially good at being polite. I’ve often gotten in trouble for saying things I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to say. Chutzpah, even the saying of it, requires impoliteness, like coughing up phlegm, and not being so lady-like or quiet.
If we stick with the root word, chataph, and define chutzpah as insolence or impudence, both of those words describe the behavior of someone with less power towards someone with more power, and that fits with the origin of my impolite behavior, in childhood. A parent can’t be impudent or insolent towards their child; they can be mean, insensitive, hurtful, etc., but a child can be impudent or insolent towards a parent or other adult, breaking the rules of conduct and risking punishment by ignoring the rules imposed on them.
Yiddish as a language overall has chutzpah. It’s heretical, and powerful, and antagonistic to the norm, and in my quiet way I am all of these things; not because I want to be, but because my reality is so different from what I’ve been told to expect.
Yiddish almost became a dead language, when the majority of Yiddish speakers were killed in the Holocaust, but it’s coming back to life, and I think that’s because it serves a much needed purpose. Yiddish is about seeing the world from an outsider’s perspective, and poking a finger at those in power, and being subversive, and funny. It’s a language that is used to talk behind someone else’s back (preferably someone who doesn’t understand Yiddish), or to take the stuffing out of a person (who does understand Yiddish), or to complain about a frustrating reality, or to do some truth telling instead of trying to calm the waters.
As I said in the beginning, my form of chutzpah is generally a willingness to say what no one else in the room will say: that the emperor has no clothes on, or that the elephant in the room is starting to smell. I’ve done that from early childhood, not because I wanted to be disruptive or rude or audacious, but because I couldn’t figure out why no one else was acknowledging the obvious, and it hurt my brain to try to pretend things weren’t happening when they were. I don’t mind politeness in general, I just mind it when it is hiding important truths. Like, let’s not pretend that the guy in the doorway with a gun is just coming over for tea, okay?
I read another definition of chutzpah, though, that said that someone with chutzpah is someone who ignores what others think, and denies personal responsibility for their actions, and lacks remorse, regret, guilt, or sympathy. And that’s not me at all. But it’s hard to get a handle on a word that means so many different things to different people. It’s not a word like, say, light bulb, which everyone will understand in pretty much the same way.
I had an English teacher in High School who made us memorize definitions for our vocabulary words, and if even one word varied from the exact definition she’d given us, we’d lose points. She didn’t test us on our ability to comprehend the word in context, or to use it in a sentence, instead she treated every word as if it had an exact and unchanging meaning. Except, words aren’t like that. Words are adopted and adapted to fit the current needs of the speakers of the language. I see this every week in my online Hebrew class, where words I learned thirty years ago have gone out of style, or picked up new baggage from how they’ve been used on the street or in business or in politics in Israel.
I’d like to think that if I do have chutzpah, it’s the good kind and not the sociopathic kind, but most of the time I feel like I don’t have enough chutzpah, or self-confidence, or whatever it takes to really make a mark in the world, and make change. It takes so much energy to speak up in a discussion, and argue against the speaker’s certainty, only to find out later that mine was actually the majority opinion in the room but no one else felt free to say anything. I’d rather not have to fight at all, honestly, but that doesn’t seem to be an option. So, maybe next time I have to be chutzpahdik and speak an impolite truth, someone else will stand up and be chutzpahdik with me. God, that would be so much better.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?