Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Chutzpah.

Michelle Bachman's mispronunciation of "חוצפה" of as "choot spa" made the news recently. She is hardly the first to make this mistake. In "Onward and upward: a biography of Katharine S. White," by Linda H. Davis (pg. 3) we see that S.N. Behrman always called White "Madame C." It seems the genesis of this nickname came about in 1954 when she mispronounced "the Yiddish colloquialism chutzpah, which the usually correct [New Yorker] editor called "chootsbah." White herself recalled that "It tickled Sam [Behrman] pink and he later told me I was known all over Broadway as Mme. C."

Regarding chutzpah, in a review essay of several books on and about the Jews in an 1896 issue of the Quarterly Review, called The Modern Jews, we read the following:
The Berlin salons, though never equal to the French in wit or politeness, soon gained a reputation; it was chiefly in them that the peculiar effluence called 'Geist' might be discerned. For this kind of light sarcastic humour, smart but superficial, and manufactured every day according to a recipe which is simple enough when stated, the fashionable Jew has always shown his aptitude. We cannot overlook it in Disraeli's novels; and French writers like Drumont confess with a sigh that the young Hebrew of the 'Gaulois' or the 'Figaro' is, in this respect, more Parisian than the Parisians themselves. Its native name is chutzbah, or—to translate very mildly—' self-confidence.' Schopenhauer has remarked, with his usual acuteness, that there is one quality which is conspicuous by its absence from the Jewish character,—it is verecundia, modesty, the shy feeling which in true genius resembles the blush on a maiden's cheek, and heightens the grace that it seems to render uncertain. Compare, from this point of view, Shelley's or even Shakespeare's lyric verse with Heine's,—and yet Heine, in the ' Buch der Lieder,' is supreme among the New-Hebrew singers. But he is never diffident, not in the most troubled or the most passionate hour of his serenading. And his prose, with its Oriental richness, its epigrams, its lightning-flashes, abounds in chutzbah; it has the insolence of a parvenu that has ' arrived,' not by reason of his wealth, but thanks to his undeniable gifts of genius.
The modern reader is no doubt perplexed by such passages. What is wrong with "self-confidence?" Or "undeniable gifts of genius?" The writer also states that "It has taken some thirty centuries to make the modern Jew. Will it take fewer to unmake him? Jacob reforms his Liturgy in Hamburg and New York; but himself neither he, nor we, can reform."


  1. I once spent a vacation in Savannah, GA. I saw that there was a restaurant named "Chutzpah". Intrigued, I went in, and asked the woman there (99% sure she wasn't Jewish) what the name of the place was. She actually turned her face sideways and said, "choot spa".
    As you could've probably guessed, they served treif.

  2. Now, that's self-confidence!

    Here's a restaurant called Chutzpah in Virginia.

  3. Politicians (or their impressionists) mangling "chutzpah" is nothing new. Forty years ago, David Frye as President Nixon pronounced it “shutz-par.” Frye's original name, BTW, was Shapiro.

    The genteel anti-Semitism of the Quarterly Review article, with its grudging, wish-I'd-said-that admiration of Heine's "undeniable gifts of genius," is at least a few steps removed from the Nazi approach, which was to relabel Heine's popular works as "anonymous."

  4. A year ago you wrote....

    "Hayon is a major character in a recently published book Midnight Intruders by Avner Gold, part of a historical fiction series for children, which I intend to review soon."

    I'm still looking forward to that review, or did I miss it?

  5. I understand what he means aboutt the "self confidence", and why he views it as a negative. Just subsitute the word "brash", and you will grasp his point. What he means is that the Jew, rather than content himself with creating poetry or prose from existing styles, is always looking to create. A new turn of phrase, a new style, a new everything. He is identifying the restlessness of the Jew in its literary incarnation. (
    (Not saying I agree with his assessment or not, I'm saying that's what I think he means.)



  6. I seem to recall an article in a legal journal about the use of Hutzpah in American judicial decisions. Could someone better at searching than I try to corroborate this?

    Lawrence Kaplan

  7. Last year there was a supreme court ruling that used the word chutzpa. It was in the case of National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, and was written by justice Scalia.

  8. Sorry that was a little too hasty, the supreme court ruling using the word chutzpa is in fact in this ruling:,60&as_ylo=2009
    It was written by chief justice roberts

  9. Lawrence Kaplan, I believe this is what you're looking for:



  10. Then there was Ronald Reagan: "Hutspida"

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