« Demerara Rebellion Day: Figuring out how to commemorate the British Anti-Slavery Movement | Main | No, Slave-Based Cotton Plantations Are Not the Model for “American Capitalism” »

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Malcolm Gladwell has chutzpah (too bad he does not know what it means)

You would think that after the first seven episodes of this season of Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, I would have learned my lesson. But the eighth episode was titled Chutzpah v. Chutzpah, so my interest in all things Jewish got the better of me.

The episode is about . . . I am not entirely sure.

Points of discussion include:

    • The difference between chutzpah as we use it "in America" (pronounced KHUTS-puh) and chutzpah as used in Israel (pronounced khoots-PAH). He says, interviewing his Israeli-born neighbor, that the former means audacity or nerve or guts, while the latter indicates a lowness or shamelessness.

    • Lots of anecdotes: 1) The creator of "Hogan's Heroes," Al Ruddy, walking into a meeting with CBS chair William Paley with no prior experience or qualifications, pitching a comedy about Nazi soldiers by acting out the roles and casting Jewish actors as Nazis; 2) Mafia boss Joseph Colombo founding the Italian-American Civil Rights League to counter stereotypes of Italians as criminals, extorting NBC to broadcast the Columbus Day Parade by threatening a hit on Johnny Carson (Carson had hit on Colombo's wife), and attempting to derail "The Godfather" until the producer, Ruddy, agreed to remove the word "mafia" from the script (which appeared only once in the original script, in any event).

    • Israel is a low-hierarchy, in-your-face society. This explains Abraham bargaining with Hashem over Sodom and Gomorrah, the Hebrew word "nu" as a conversation-rusher (a kind of "go on" or "get to the point already"), and Gladwell's neighbor confronting school administrators about closing the school because of snow (having the kids at home on these days made her life difficult).

    • Oral argument in the appeal of the Flores litigation, in which the DOJ lawyer argued that toothbrushes, soap, and decent sleeping conditions are not within the ordinary meaning of "safe and sanitary."

It does seem worth deconstructing how much is wrong here.

1) Gladwell never mentions that chutzpah originates in Yiddish; he repeatedly talks about how the word is used "in America," as if it is an American concept. American English absorbed the word and concept into Yinglish. That explains the different pronunciations. Yiddish places the emphasis  on the next-to-last syllable of words (SHA-bos); Hebrew places the emphasis on the last syllable of words ("sha-BAHT). English also places the emphasis on the next-to-last syllable, which is why Yiddish words slide into English so well. It makes sense that modern Hebrew (a language that did not exist until the late 19th century) would incorporate the Yiddish word, but with Hebrew pronunciation. So we are dealing with the same word, but in different languages having different pronunciation rules.

2) The bigger problem: I am not sure Gladwell understands what chutzpah means. Gladwell's premise is that the Al Ruddy story illustrates what we "in America" call KHUTS-puh, but would not be what Israelis call khoots-PAH; only the Joe Colombo stories qualify as the latter.

But would a Yiddish speaker call what Ruddy did chutzpah? Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish" offers several illustrations of chutzpah--the boy who kills his parents and pleads for mercy because he is an orphan; the man who shouts for help while beating you up; and the beggar who, given a choice between free challah and free black bread, chooses challah, and when told that it is more expensive, says "it's worth it." All reveal not simple audacity or guts, but shamelessness and self-servingness, perhaps with a touch of irony thrown in (what Gladwell says is khoots-PAH but not KHUTS-puh).

None of Rosten's examples is analogous to what Ruddy did. He was ballsy and audacious, because he had no business being in that room pitching a TV show. It also was potentially offensive for its time (this was a different era of comedy two years before "The Producers"), even though everyone in the room was Jewish. But it lacked that irony. Colombo, on the other hand, was a chutzpanik. Rosten would have been happy to include "Italian criminal forms group to protest media portrayal of Italians as criminals" in his definition.

In other words, KHUTS-puh (Yiddish) and khoots-PAH (Hebrew pronunciation) are the same: Neither would include Ruddy, both would include Colombo. Now some might disagree with this and argue that both do qualify. Fine. Then we are debating the meaning of one word (however pronounced), not the difference in meaning between two words.

3) Suppose Gladwell's premise is right: English-speakers in the U.S. would talk about Ruddy as chutzpah (even if Rosten would not), while Hebrew speakers in Israel would not. But that suggests that the Yinglish chutzpah has evolved and broadened to cover all instances of audacity or nerve or guts, without the shamelessness. Then, as my wife pointed out, we have a nice illustration of cultural appropriation, how a culture or language alters a word or concept by absorbing it. The lesson is not that Israel has a different word than we have "in America;" the lesson might be that American English altered or expanded the meaning of a word taken from a different language, while Israeli Hebrew maintained the original meaning. So talk about that. Or at least acknowledge a different explanation for the phenomenon.

4) The discussion of nu has the same problem. Gladwell describes it as a uniquely Israeli verbal push to move a conversation along. But, again, the word was part of Yiddish, was spoken in Eastern Europe, and was brought to America by millions of Yiddish-speaking immigrants a century ago. What is interesting (but not mentioned in the podcast) is that nu has not been absorbed into Yinglish as has, for example, oy vey. It thus died off as people stopped speaking Yiddish. Meanwhile, Hebrew has maintained the word.

5) As for his neighbor's tangles with the school administration over the inconvenience of snow days: I would describe them as obnoxious, inconsiderate, and selfish, to say nothing of clueless as to how broader institutions and the social compact operate. I can imagine the "are you kidding me" conversations school administrators had about her phone calls.

But not chutzpah. However pronounced.

I promise this will be my final Gladwell-related post. I think I am hate-listening at this point.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 18, 2019 at 09:32 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


Thanks, Orly. You're right that opinions can differ about the propriety of her questions and what to call them. My point was just that they're not examples of chutzpah. And if Gladwell's point was that "Israel and Israelis are different," that might have been the only example of it.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 20, 2019 4:44:27 PM

I listened to the podcast last week and had similar reactions. But - i enjoyed the interview with Mili Avital - fun fact - she's an israeli actress who once dated Ross from friends...I am laughing when reading you describe her potential question to about snow days [which as she said, she chose to not ask] as obnoxious, inconsiderate, and selfish and clueless. That's actually a difference between israelis and americans. if you ask something, you might be a nudnik, maybe clueless, but the one who doesn't know to ask is the obnoxious inconsiderate one. Questions are good...
i do think that though gladwell could have done a far better job on the podcast, and the italian mob example was out of place, there is something about positive chutzpa (by someone who is brave and balsy) versus negative chutzpa (by someone who we say is a chutzpan). my friend nili (not to be confused with mili) just did a TEDx on this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwvHcvwj090

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Aug 20, 2019 4:37:04 PM

Israel in 2019 may be a low-hierarchical state, now. But Abraham lived thousands of years ago, postulating that the same culture was extant them requires a leap of faith.

Posted by: Drew | Aug 19, 2019 6:23:44 AM

"But that suggests that the Yinglish chutzpah has evolved and broadened to cover all instances of audacity or nerve or guts, without the shamelessness."

Assuming that Rosten correctly defined chutzpah, and I wouldn't know because all my Yiddish-speaking ancestors are dead, yes, I think this is clearly correct. There's no doubt that Americans use chutzpah in a non-pejorative sense, though I think it still retains a connotation of brashness and is not usually used to refer to pure bravery. I quoted a First Circuit judge's (surprisingly, not Selya's) quotation of Rosten's definition of chutzpa in a brief once, in connection with a topic that may interest you, the appealability of orders denying motions to stay discovery pending a decision on a QI-based dispositive motion. Such stays should usually be granted, of course, but whether orders denying them are appealable is a harder question. The First Circuit case is Lugo v. Alvarado.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Aug 18, 2019 9:10:58 PM

Gladwell is Canadian. I am sure he could make the same sort of comparison between Montreal and Paris. But what would be the point?

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Aug 18, 2019 7:04:14 PM

Good point. Gladwell spends a lot of time talking with that neighbor about the vowels. But, again, without recognizing that this is not because they are different words, but that they are the same from a third language, incorporated into a new language with different rules.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 18, 2019 6:45:37 PM

Great post, Howard. I would add that the Israeli pronunciation is because the first vowel is an oo, as in food. There is no Hebrew vowel comparable to the short u (as in put) in the American pronunciation.

Likewise, there is no kh sound in English (as in the Scottish loch), though there is in both Hebrew and Yiddish.

Thus, Americans say humm-muss, while Israelis say khoo-moos, though it is the same word with the same meaning.

And it appears that Gladwell got nu wrong, too. In addition to "get to the point," it also means "what's up?" when used as a greeting. I am surprised that he didn't say anything about eppis, an intensifier with no separate meaning, which has a somewhat equivalent in the Hebrew davka.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Aug 18, 2019 2:18:45 PM

Post a comment