Chutzpah Speaks Loudly to Me

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)

Read more about cars and driving and elvis and amazing grace

14 comments… add one
  • Craig Link

    When I was working up there I took to carrying an attache so I could whack people in the knees just like they had been doing to me. Sang- froid indeed

  • Cindy A Link

    Ruth — How did you manage to go from religion in West Texas to New York pedestrians? My mind is still reeling! For the record, I’m from West Texas and a mysteriously fun-loving Catholic girl stole my first boyfriend. I married a Catholic and consider things even now…

  • Texans are all chutzpah behind the wheel.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Craig — I’m sure there are human-rights laws against abusing attaches like that.  Attache cases I could understand.

    Cindy — I’ve always been a bit loosey-goosey about transitions in writing and in life.

    Sophie — You’re right!  And the bigger the vehicle, the bigger the chutzpah.

  • This cracks me up!  Every time I go to NYC, I am reminded of how little chutzpah I have when it comes to crossing the street.  I’ve seen people driving on sidewalks, too.   So I just hang onto my daughter’s coat tail and close my eyes:)

  • LOL! What a great post! I’m a guilty Catholic married to a mensch and of course I pronounced challah with a ‘ch’ in front of his family no less!! Now, I’ve got it down and proudly call myself a shiksa:)
    Don’t you love walking in NYC? It doesn’t matter if you’re pushing a stroller, a walker or just taking a stroll, you know you’re not from NY if you wait for the light to turn red:)

  • You are so right about how pedestrians own the road in New York City. I’m a former Texan so I know that in the lone star state, METAL is King and pedestrians do not play around with cars or trucks. It’s all where you live. Interesting, isn’t it?

  • Rachel Dickinson Link

    As a life-long resident of a tiny village in Upstate New  York I lack chutzpah on the street, whether walking or behind the wheel of a car.  In fact, I don’t think we even recognize chutpah when it laughs in our face

  • Great post! As a Jewish New Yorker, I plead guilty to everything. The hardest part about it now that I’m a mom: Teaching junior NOT to run out into the street until the light turns. It’s forcing me to slow down, and I don’t like it. No, I don’t like it one bit.

  • I’m from Boston (and Jewish) and we drivers are the NY pedestrians, I think. I completely change my driving technique and get way too much chutzpah when I go back East…

  • Interestingly enough, I’ve learned that chutzpah, at its purest, means courage. Take that up a few notches, tweek it and, well, I think you described it perfectly!

  • Ruth, what a fun post. Being raised Methodist and totally lacking in chutzpah, I can relate. I actually laughed out loud at the end. Good start to my day – thanks.

  • Funny and true observations.  I grew up in “The City” as us New Yawkers modestly term our town, but spent 17 years in a small town in Ohio (I never got used to the fact that I couldn’t walk into the local grocery without meeting people I knew).  When we returned to New York, I found, to my great dismay, that I’d lost my chutzpah.  Whenever someone pushed ahead in line, or grabbed “my” taxi, I’d get flustered and upset.  I even waited for traffic lights, just like the tourists.   Took me quite a while to reclaim my birthright, but now I jaywalk with the best of them.  

  • Winston Link

    Ruth, I see you alighting from the rear seat of a silver 1959 Chutzpah– white walls, of course– at the entrance to Central Park.  You stroll a few yards into the park.  Your long leopard-print silk gown flutters about yourankles in perfect mimicry of a heart in love.  You stop, whisper, “If you please, I thank you all.”  Then you bow, open armed, to the pigeons.  The ends of your posh boa kiss the grass.

Leave a Comment