I grew up Methodist in West Texas, where most of the religious divisions are among Protestant sects, with a scattering of Catholics to spice things up. The Baptists didn’t dance or drink, the Church of Christers didn’t dance or drink or have organs in their churches, the Methodists and Presbyterians were moderates who danced, but very badly, and the Catholics seemed to have more a lot more fun than anybody else. In fact, I developed a private theory that the Reformation was all about getting the dour and joyless into Protestant denominations and leaving the Catholic church to the bon vivants.
Since I didn’t know any Jews (they were evidently too smart to hang around West Texas for very long), reading Philip Roth was a revelation to me. I first read Portnoy’s Complaint when I was a college student in a right-wing dump of a college town and loved the book. Trouble was, I kept coming upon these foreign words that weren’t quite German. I dutifully checked my dictionary to find out what “chutzpah” was, but it wasn’t listed. Maybe it was some kind of Methodist dictionary or something. But I finally got a sense of what the word meant by reading it in context, and went around pronouncing it in my mind with the same kind of intro CH- you have for chump.
Chutzpah! That’s what I needed more of in my life!
Years passed, I left West Texas I learned how to pronounce “chutzpah” properly, and I finally stopped telling the story of my early pronunciation attempts at the word to all my Jewish friends, since they clearly viewed me as an imbecile. In fact, I pretended I’d been born pronouncing it correctly.
I know the classic example of chutzpah is the kid who murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court since he’s an orphan. However, being in New York, I’ve been able to study countless other classic examples of chutzpah: New York pedestrians.
God, I love them, I worship them, I want to be like them. I follow them as they step into traffic, no matter what color the traffic light is, no matter whether it’s a Greyhound bus or some hybrid toy car bearing down on them. These pedestrians do not look, they do not flinch, they only move forward in any damned direction they want to go. When they come face-to-face with a car and driver, they show total disdain and the purest scorn. They have probably never even learned to cringe, have they?
It works! Pedestrians own this town, as far as I can tell. I walk along with them, mimicking their sang-froid, their hauteur, their mastery and ownership of horizontal concrete surfaces.
Chutzpah! That’s what I’m still trying to get!
Trying to get, at least temporarily, since I live with the uneasy knowledge that once I return to Texas, a pedestrian with chutzpah is only begging to end up squashed like a hood ornament on the front grill of a pickup truck. Come to think of it, since I’ll be driving and behind the wheel once again — what the hell will I care?
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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