Just Above Sunset
February 26, 2006 - The Joys of Chutzpah

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Our Man in Tel-Aviv is Sylvain Ubersfeld whose columns appear in these pages intermittently, when he gets a chance to jot down his observations from there. This is his fifth column for Just Above Sunset. You will find links to his previous columns at the bottom of the page.


By Sylvain Ubersfeld

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Anyone familiar with Judaism and the Jewish culture will certainly know what Chutzpah means. For those who are unfamiliar with this culture, and totally foreign to the Israeli microcosm, let's try to describe it in words accessible to all.  (For those of you who are "just in between" and need literary references, get hold of the excellent book by Leo Rosten called The Joys of Yiddish - a must read if you intend to continue with your exploration of the "Israeli phenomena.")


Chutzpah is a  trait of character which appears to be genetically transmitted from generation to generation to Israelis, child, men or women, which will allow them, by pushing their way around on a daily basis, to accomplish many normal tasks which would appear otherwise impossible to achieve.  Chutzpah is a force which that will takeover one's own personality and will change a peaceful senior citizen into a brutal murderer during traffic hours on the Ayalon Highway, an innocent child of a reputable family into a genuine brat in a restaurant, or if at all possible a young Israeli virgin (if there is such a thing ) into a sex addict without even having to offer any kind of alcoholic beverage either before or after.


Chutzpah drives the Israeli society from dawn to dusk, shabbes (Shabbat) included.  As Leo Rosten, a reputable Jewish author, often said there are words in the Yiddish culture which cannot be translated in any language because, although made of a few letters, they do carry centuries of traditions, a way of life, misery, joys, loneliness and togetherness.  And some words carry to many meanings to be easily translated. 


Chutzpah is like cocaine - it can totally change your personality including (like cocaine) your sexual performance.  For the Israelis, chutzpah is luckily something that comes free, generally at birth, as a gift from some unknown fairy who generously provided it to both males and females so that they can survive as long as possible in an hostile environment full of other people, certainly older, but having also been gifted with chutzpah.


Abuse of Chutzpah is NOT dangerous for your health.  It is NOT like eating a non-kosher steak, or oysters, or even a piece of ham (God… I don't like this word, not here).  Abuse of Chutzpah IS good for your health.  It will allow you to go directly to the beginning of a queue in the post office, it will help you to park your vehicle in the middle of the street while going to fetch a pack of cigarettes, it will help you to obtain the best possible seating at Manta Ray WITHOUT having reserved your table over the telephone - simply by pretending that your are a personal friend of Ehud Olmert (the acting prime minister) and that, before, your were a very personal friend of Ariel Sharon who in any case would not be able to confirm this, at least for the time being.


Chutzpah is an incredible force, far stronger than the "force" they do talk about in star wars!  We do not say here "may the force be with you."  We say "Waaaaaw! I have never seen so much Chutzpah!"  When in Rome , do as Romans.  When in Israel, do like the Israelis.


Because I was born a "part time Jew" - orthodox rabbis call it with contempt being a Mischlinge - I was gifted  at birth with many things  some in respectable quantity, but because my mother was a god (not THE God , but the Prophet Yeshoua - I Guess you call it Jesus) fearing, law abiding women, it appears that my genes did not combine right and that I missed the opportunity to get my share of Chutzpah.  So, I had to get lessons here!  This was the only way for me to come up level with regular folks gifted with that sacred trait of character.  Being a foreigner, if caught, I could always say that because I had seen the behavior of people with Chutzpah, I thought it was the right way to behave.


My first lesson was given to me  by a nice Jewish girl named Sheila from a somehow reputable family whose name starts with Gug… and ends up with heim… - I think her family is fairly well off and has been so for generations.  I ran into her unexpectedly in the supermarket on Brazil street where I steal pickled cucumber and other nice things (dried figs, hazelnuts, salted cashew) as I do my daily minimal shopping.  She caught me stuffing my face as I was pretending to decipher some Hebrew  data on a box of cereal.  Suspecting that I was indeed a foreigner she told me in the best New York accent – "What a Chutzpah you have got!  Stealing cucumbers and eating them one by one!  I have observed you circling around the shop and taking ONE cucumber at a time!  Don't you have any shame, exposing yourself to being ridiculed?"


As I swallowed, immediately, the half-cucumber still in my mouth, I looked at her with my "beaten dog eyes" - it works with some women, especially here where males are known for brutality to their spouses or girl friends - convinced that she would call the cops on me.  I could already imagine the article in the Yediot Araronot (the latest news) - "Manager Of A Reputable American Firm Caught Red-Handed At Hypernetto With A Cucumber In His Mouth - Offender Deported Back To Country Of Origin. Rest Of The Cucumbers Safe."


But none of that came true.  She gently took my hand and led me back to the cucumber stand.  She picked up a plastic box and asked me to fill it up and to close it with a plastic lid.  So I did, and then she said, "Your Chutzpah level is too low!  You need to work on it!  Your mission, if you accept it, will be to eat the entire box of cucumbers while finishing your shopping, drop the empty container in the women's lingerie department and find a way NOT to queue up when you will get to the cashier."


Eating the cucumbers was no problem at all.  It was done before I reached the shelves with the imported beers!  Dropping the container in the women's lingerie area was also easy enough… but bypassing the queue was not going to be easy! 


Suddenly came the illumination as my thoughts turned to a little dog named Herzl which I had found on the airport and fed for a few days.  Herzl was the name - jumping the queue was the game!  I pushed my way through, ignoring all the protests from the customers and went directly to the little falasha cashier (Ethiopian Jew) on duty in checkout number four.  "My name is Herzl," I said, "just like my father and my grandfather Theodor!  If it was not for MY family, you would not even be here and this supermarket would not exist!  This entitles me to some special treatment, don't you think so?"


As the protest seemed to decrease and the curiosity appeared on the faces of the customers in the line, I simply turned to them as I finished paying for my groceries and added to their attention - "Yes, it's true, and my mother's family name was Meir.  Does this ring a bell?"  (Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel in the 60's.) 


As I  finished stuffing plastic bags with my groceries and before anyone could start some kind of a history quiz, Sheila appeared from nowhere.  "You are one of us," she said, "and a very good one!  I have never seen such Chutzpah in my entire life!" 


I pressed on to the automatic door… but it was too late!  The security guards had already arrived .



Copyright 2006 – Sylvain Ubersfeld




Also by Sylvain Ubersfeld -


Addictive Jerusalem (Our Man in Tel-Aviv, September 25, 2005)

The Seventh Day (Our Man in Tel-Aviv, October 2, 2005, with photos)

Safe or Sorry? (Our Man in Tel-Aviv, October 2, 2005, with photos)

Do You Speak Ivrit? (Our Man in Tel-Aviv, October 16, 2005)

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
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