Supreme self confidence Few in history have had more chutzpah than General George Patton. According to a friend of mine whose father served in Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War, on the way to Germany the brazen general’s jeep stopped in front of some of his soldiers who were camouflaging their tanks. My friend’s dad was one of those soldiers. “What are you men doing?” the general asked. “We’re camouflaging our tanks,” the commanding officer replied. “Well take that (bleep) off,” Patton bellowed. “I want the damned Germans to see us coming!”
A judge was once asked about his definition of pornography “I’ll know it when I see it,” he said. The same could probably be said about chutzpah. No doubt lots of people have chutzpah — a Yiddish word that my dictionary defines as “supreme self-confidence” — including the famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, who wrote the book Chutzpah as well as the forewords to two of my own books.
Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yiddish, describes chutzpah as gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible guts, and “presumption plus arrogance such as no other word in any other language can do justice to.” So, although chutzpah is one of those words having no real translation to English, for instance, what we do know about chutzpah is that it can be a truly positive thing — kind of like the force in Star Wars — or an equally negative thing, depending upon who has it, and how it is used.
Dershowitz, who throughout his career has been a staunch defender of Israel and other just causes, has constantly exhibited the highest degree of integrity and, for lack of a better word, “chutzpah,” to make a positive difference in the world.
Others, of course, have tried to follow a similar enlightened path. Gandhi and Churchill didn’t care much for one another, but one thing they had in common was that indefinable ingredient: chutzpah. And whether you love him or hate him,
Donald Trump had the chutzpah to defy the odds and enter the presidential race and win. Truth be told, anyone who has the audacity to run for president has chutzpah.
Of course, when it comes to the “dark side,” you could say that Hitler also had chutzpah. So did Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and that guy in North Korea. Fortunately, our Founding Fathers, products of the enlightenment, had chutzpah as well. George Washington led a revolt against the British, a military juggernaut at the time. His friend, John Hancock, had the largest signature on the Declaration of Independence, basically signing his own death warrant for treason. Ben Franklin was well aware of that fact as the rebellion began to unravel.
“Either we hang together, or we will hang separately,” he famously said.
Then again, chutzpah is also present in the story of the man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court — because he’s an orphan!
But the grand prize for chutzpah, I believe, has to go to the famed mathematician John Nash, subject of the Oscar-winning motion picture A Beautiful Mind. A scene was left out of the wonderful movie about the brilliant but psychotic Nash having to do with Nash’s relationship with a physics professor at Princeton when Nash was at the school as a first year mathematics student.
According to Sylvia Nasar, who wrote the book the movie was based on, Nash drove the professor nuts, regularly coming to his office and challenging him on his knowledge of physics. One day the professor had enough. “You’re a first year mathematics student,” the professor said, raising his voice. “Why do you always keep insinuating that you know more about physics than I do?” Nash persisted though, insisting he was right and the professor was wrong. John Nash certainly had chutzpah.