Is there a Yiddle who does not know the meaning of the word “chutzpa”? Is there even a nochri (non-Jew) who doesn’t? The closest translation of the word may be “a lot of nerve.” From this you see that a single Yiddish word has more impact than several English ones. No wonder chutzpa has become part of the American lingo.
As we all know, an early lesson that parents should teach their children is to be a mentch and to avoid chutzpa. But while we’ve all heard many maises (stories) regarding how to be a mentch, we’ve not heard as many about chutzpa. (Of course, being a mentch includes avoiding chutzpa.) With that understood, here are a few examples of chutzpa, past and present, that illuminate the word and its meaning.
Snore and More
Once upon a time, there was a large Jewish population in East Baltimore. Several shuls occupied the area, and some of them had interesting names. There was a Russisher (Russian) shul, the Kolker shul, the boys shul, etc. – each of them named after the early organizers of the shul. As the years passed, there were no more Russians in the Russisher shul, no more Kolkers in the Kolker shul, and the boys were grown men. What they all had in common was that chutzpa was minimal; the synagogue was considered a makom kodesh (holy place).
As shuls became Americanized, however, things changed. A shul maiseh: My father was the chazan of the Bais Hamedresh Hagodol. Rabbi Samuel Vitsick was the rabbi. He delivered a dvar Torah on Shabbat, to which most of the shul-goers were attentive. However, there was an individual (whom we’ll call Nimmis Krepsky) who fell asleep and began snoring during the rabbi’s sermon – not low-key snoring, you understand, but the fog horn variety!
When this occurred, the rabbi stopped speaking, and Nimmis suddenly awoke. “Iz doch guht (that’s good)” you may exclaim. Not exactly, because after the rabbi resumed speaking, Krepsky resumed snoring! The rabbi shortened his talk, and things quieted down – for a few minutes.
After davening, the snorer was approached by the gabbai and admonished for his chutzpa. His response was that he worked diligently during the week and that prior to attending the shul he had taken a few shots of his favorite shnapps! Furthermore, as a member of the shul he had a right to chap a dremmel(take a nap)! The only consolation was that Krepsky often overslept and so missed going to shul altogether.
Another shul maiseh: Yosef Pinkovitch appeared to have a great need for attention. Farvoss (why)? Vair vais (who knows)? Nu, what did he do to get attention? you may ask. Iz azoy (this is what happened):
One day the rabbi did not attend services. Beryl suddenly walked to the front of the shul and sat in the rabbi’s chair. Now he received total attention! The congregants were unhappy about his behavior, but they were silent due to the prohibition regarding shaming a person in public (no olam haboh!). After services, Beryl was admonished in private. Did he apologize for his chutzpadik act? you may ask. With remorse, he stated that his reoccurring dreams of becoming a rabbi were haunting him. Nu, if Yosef Hatzadik, who is mentioned in the holy Torah, had important dreams, why shouldn’t he, Yoseph Pinkovitch, not consider his dreams important? After all, they both were named Yosef! I am not certain whether he remained a shul member.
A final shul maiseh: A large proportion of the Jewish population shifted from East Baltimore to a Northwest section of the city known as Forest Park. Several prominent shuls were located on Garrison Boulevard. There was Beth Tfiloh (Rabbi Rosenblatt), Tifereth Israel (Rabbi Bak), Bais Avraham (Rabbi Hertzberg), and Beth Yehudah (Rabbi Perlmutter). And, of course, there was Ner Israel Rabbinical College (Rabbi Ruderman). I enjoyed davening in the Bais Avraham and in the Tifereth Israel.
One Sabbath morning, the rav of the shul began giving his Shabbat dvar Torah. The Yiddish-speaking members of the shul were dwindling, and newcomers did not understand the language. The rabbi therefore began speaking in English. Suddenly, one of the congregants stood up and shouted, “Rehd oif Yiddish nisht oif goyish (Speak in Yiddish, not in goyish)!”
The rabbi stopped speaking for a moment, and the chutzpadiker person repeated his remark. The rabbi again stopped and calmly stated that if he, the congregant, disapproved of his speaking style, he could take a walk to the door and read the sign above the door. Nu, you may ask, what was written above the door? EXIT.
Bonding with Delinquents
An Israel bond maiseh: Several years ago, I volunteered to join the Israel Bond Drive which was held on Yom Kippur. A month elapsed since the drive, and my job was to phone persons who had pledged to purchase bonds but forgot to honor their pledges. The people I phoned were usually courteous and assured me that their pledge would be forthcoming. However, there were a few persons who shouted that they would only forward their pledge when the government of Israel changed! A year came, a year went, and changes in the Israeli government took place. Did they pay? you may ask. Ahz ah yohr oif zey (no). They now expressed a dislike for some of the Knesset members!
Having worked in the Baltimore City school system for many years, I observed many forms of chutzpa. A top incident of chutzpa was committed by a parent of a student who had been given speech therapy. Another semester arrived, and the child was no longer in need of the service. This was decided by a committee that included the speech therapist, the vice-principal, and other choshuveh (important) staff members.
The father of the student attended the meeting, and things were going rather smoothly when he suddenly reached in his pocket and removed a large pen knife. He opened the knife and thrust it into the table while shouting, “I want speech!” The police were notified, and the fahrtumult (chaotic) meeting came to a grinding halt. Interestingly, the youngster received speech for another semester! The moral of the story: Sometimes chutzpa pays!
Another school maiseh: Billy Smith (not his real name) was suspended from school for a week because his conduct was totally unacceptable. What did he do? you may ask. Billy placed a wad of gum on the teacher’s chair. Prior to returning to school, Billy and a parent were to discuss the incident with the principal. Billy’s mother was unable to attend, so his grandmother took her place.
Three sat in the principal’s office: grandma, Billy, and the oysgemahtert (exhausted) principal. “Well, Billy,” said the principal, “what’s your excuse?” Billy was quiet for a few seconds but suddenly blurted out that he was not at fault because the teacher hated him, and he hated the teacher. Suddenly his grandmother punched him with great gusto and yelled, “Shut up!”
Did Billy quiet down? you may ask. He was quieter than a mouse in a house with a cat! His grandma did not tolerate chutzpa.
After retiring from the school system I took an interest in collectibles. And what is a collectible? you may ask. Iz dher enfehr (the answer is) just about any item imaginable.
I began working in an antique shop on Sundays. Nu, where does chutzpa enter the picture? Hair zich tsue (give a listen).
Another Jewish sales person who worked there was a “cultural” Yid. Doss hayst (that means) that he could speak Yiddish and enjoyed the Yiddish theater. When it came to Yiddishkeit (Judaism), though, he fifed (ignored) it. I once asked him about wearing tefilin, and his response was, “Isaac, don’t try to proselytize me.”
One day, he was sitting at the store counter munching a sandwich. Suddenly, he blurted out, “Isaac, do you know what I’m eating? I’m eating a chazer (pig meat) sandwich.” He was aware that I was an observant Yid, so the chutzpa was twofold. First, he was violating Jewish law, and second, he was causing anguish to another Yid. I looked him square in the eye and responded, “Zolst dervorgehn vehren! (you should choke on it!)” He was so shocked at the response that he began coughing and choking.
Years later, I received a phone call from him, and he began uttering the first line of the Shema prayer. He was calling from a hospital. Was this his way of doing teshuva, or was he stating that he still was a Yid? Vehr vais (who knows)? Only the Boss.
A few years ago, there was a “stand with Israel” parade in Baltimore. A large crowd gathered and joined the parade, many individuals holding beautiful Israeli flags. A few musical groups participated, and many of the Jewish day schools were represented. There was minimal fear of anti-Semites, but there was one shocker. “Were there terrorists? you may ask. Not exactly. Rather, while marching, we passed a group of youngsters brazenly waving PLO flags and holding anti-Israel posters. Were they from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Iraq? you may ask. The answer is, none of the above: They were Neturei Karta! Their dress was Jewish and their chutzpa was unparalleled! (Nu, let’s be dan lekaf zechus. Perhaps they were Arabs in disguise.)
May we arrive at a time when chutzpa is a thing of the past, which will occur when people practice the holy Torah maxim that states: “Ve’ahavta lerei’echa kamocha – Love others as much as yourself.” To that piece of wisdom, we have to add just one thing: Don’t forget to love yourself!