Chutzpah in the family

Life lessons on chutzpah from my Dad

The meaning of chutzpah is well known: audacity , cheekiness and even insolence. There are different levels of chutzpah and how people view this characteristic which is often associated with people of Jewish origin. Chutzpah is the ability to take a situation in hand, to be at the forefront, to make a mark and to leave others wondering”why didn’t I do that”?

Chutzpah, at its extreme, can be seen as arrogant, pushy and even aggressive. An example of this, going back to my teenage years, were Hungarian women lining up, well not really lining up, and in fact far from it, in their quest to pick up European delicacies from Grace Bros in Bondi Junction in Sydney.  In the 1970s Bondi Junction was  the centre of the Jewish/Hungarian community and Thursday evening was the time they came out in force due to the recent introduction of late night shopping hours. My father and I would line up in the manner we were accustomed to from our recent home in Czechoslovakia where queues were a common, every day phenomenon.  Despite being annoying and time consuming, they provided a chance to observe others, chat (so long as it wasn’t about the regime) and be surprised at the end of the queue as to what the shop was actually selling.

It was very different behind the counter at Grace Brothers. These women, immigrants just like us, were on a mission to get out of there as quickly as possible with the largest amount of Hungarian salami, cheese, gefilte fish and many more delicacies. The counter at Grace Bros was the only place in the vicinity where, 40 or so years ago, one could buy such things. The first few times,  both my father and I were not quite sure what was happening. There we were waiting in line when every few minutes another middle-aged female of imposing stature would push past us, without any kind of civility, already shouting at the service person as to what her order was to be. It took us a few weeks to realise that  we were not going to get anywhere, being the polite, newly arrived Czechs, used to an unspoken but clearly understood, queuing code.

Even though annoyed with this kind of non-queuing behaviour,  my father felt it was important to give me a  life lesson concerning chutzpah. At that time I didn’t know that part of my ethnic origin was Jewish; there was a reason for that but that’s another story. I think this was his subconscious way of introducing me to some of the practical aspects of being part Jewish. “See” he would say, ” you need to have chutzpah in life to get the things you want”. He would then qualify this statement with ” well perhaps not quite like these women”, and perhaps the word women was preceded by a Czech swear word,  I was young and it was along time ago so I can’t remember exactly what that word may have been.

Throughout my life he would repeat sentiments similar to those said in the early days in Grace Brothers.  I was not a chutzpah-type person when I was young and come to think of it neither was he for most of his life. But as all parents do, he wanted his daughter to acquire characteristics that he didn’t have himself but felt would be useful in life. As I matured and gained self-confidence, there was some chutzpah that emerged in my personality, usually when I felt slighted or treated unjustly. But it is still difficult to gather the confidence to display chutzpah when faced with strangers, especially  those that are famous.

A number of years ago , while waiting for coffee at the Qantas Lounge at Sydney Airport, a towering figure of a man stood next to me. Looking up I saw it was Gough Whitlam, a former PM whom I had admired.A tiny bit of chutzpah would have been wonderful at this point as I really, really wanted to start a conversation and tell him how much I admired him.  But no, it was not forthcoming, and by the time I actually thought of something to say he was gone. I think my father would not have been unhappy about he lack of chutzpah in this case as he really didn’t like Gough and many arguments were held over his leadership.

Chutzpah at its best is the ability to move beyond being self-conscious, beyond worrying what others will say or do, and  to go after what you want, in the nicest possible, cheeky, sometimes flirtatious way.  A big smile helps too. Perhaps I have learnt a little from those early lessons my father tried to instill in me; a middle-aged woman going up to the very handsome tango dancer at a conference in Buenos Aires and having a photo taken with him is somewhat in the right direction. It still takes a lot of effort  for me to display chutzpah at times, my father’s words sneaking their way into my indecisive mind, and so it is comforting to know that sometimes family lessons skip a generation.

The grandson, who didn’t hear those  lessons from his ‘deda‘, is showing promise that the chutzpah gene does live in the family genetic blueprint. It takes self-confidence to ask a question of a well-known business man in front of a large audience in any case. But it takes chutzpah to preface that serious question with an anecdote as to how that businessman started his business and to suggest that this may be a good opportunity for future business together between the young man and the businessman.  Indeed, it shows that chutzpah does get you to places, whether it is the acquisition of Hungarian salami or a convivial drink with well-known business people. I think ‘deda‘  would be happy.