“Chutzpah triggers not just shock but admiration”: Oksana Forostyna talks about a new word in the vocabulary of Ukrainian journalists

Oksana Forostyna

In the studio with me today is Oksana Forostyna, who is one of the members of the Nestor Group, a publisher, and a translator. We will be talking with this thinker and columnist about a topic that we have begun to raise for some time now. The start of our conversation is a word that may not be very familiar to our listeners: “chutzpah.” What is it?

Oksana Forostyna: Chutzpah is a Yiddish word. It is widely used in the English language, and even as a term in American jurisprudence. The word exists in the Polish and German languages. It came to our country recently, thanks to journalism. I first read about it in a long essay by Mykola Riabchuk, which appeared back in 2010, I think.

This word is used completely differently in Israeli discourse. It means ultimate audacity that leaves the listener utterly speechless and confused that someone could have such a level of irresponsibility, in the way it is derived from rabbinical thought. Chutzpah is when a pupil reproaches his teacher very boldly for interpreting the Torah incorrectly. A person who clearly has less knowledge and experience is admonishing the person who is teaching—and who possesses deeper knowledge—for his ignorance.

Those who refer to this original meaning say that it is impossible to convey it by means of analogy. That’s why it entered other languages from Yiddish.

Iryna Slavinska: But, as you yourself said, since this word figures in Anglophone journalism, I suppose that contemporary English-speaking journalists don’t often write that someone is interpreting the Torah incorrectly. In what sense is it used in the English language?  

Oksana Forostyna: I don’t recall when this interpretation was first used. Chutzpah is when a defendant who has killed his father and mother pleads for mercy from the court on the grounds that he is an orphan. This is a certain level of amorality and sociopathy that cannot even find an adequate response. That’s why the most important element of chutzpah is this moment of confusion on the listener’s part.

Iryna Slavinska: In other words, it is a thesis, the response to which is shock.

Oksana Forostyna: Yes.

Iryna Slavinska: Let’s talk about the contemporary context of Israel. It’s not a Yiddish-speaking country. But the word chutzpah, as far as I understand, is also used. 

Oksana Forostyna: Yes. And this is a very interesting story. It is about how a word changes when it migrates into other languages.

Iryna Slavinska: From culture to culture, after all. Because the culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe, for example, is something absolutely different from the contemporary culture of Israel with Hebrew as the language of communication.

Oksana Forostyna: But in the literature on Israel written by Jews I have encountered this word in a positive context. Chutzpah is courage and bravery in the face of insurmountable circumstances. It is used in the context of starting a new business or solving a very difficult problem. Or resistance to some very respected structures. But all this is in a positive context, with a noble goal.

Iryna Slavinska: In other words, is this readiness to break with tradition, if one translates correctly from the original meaning about the correct and incorrect interpretation of the Torah? The readiness to do something incorrectly?

Oksana Forostyna: At play here is courage that allows one not to be stopped by his/her own limitations. When you take on some tasks that are beyond your strength, and finally complete them. This is what is in the context of Israeli books on technological and economic development. It is the courage and bravery of entrepreneurs on the edge of adventurism.

Iryna Slavinska: Let’s continue talking about the semantic circles of this word. To what extent is it used? Is it something rare that doesn’t figure very often in Yiddish or other languages? Or the opposite? 

Oksana Forostyna: I encounter it quite often in English-language literature and communications. In our country, more rarely. I think that people have begun to use it more often in recent times.

Iryna Slavinska: In Ukraine today, when columnists or bloggers use the word “chutzpah,” what do they have in mind? 

Oksana Forostyna: Going back to Mykola Riabchuk, who, I think, was the first to begin talking about it so widely: He draws attention to the neglect of context. This is when a speaker—a public figure, as a rule—speaks or acts as though there’s no tomorrow. This is deep disrespect for rules and people.

Iryna Slavinska: Is there some kind of emotional nuance in the Ukrainian context of this word? Is it about audacity or courage? 

Oksana Forostyna: I have not encountered it in non-translated Ukrainian texts. I have come across a negative connotation.

Iryna Slavinska: To which character traits does this connotation refer? 

Oksana Forostyna: I think that when a person uses this word, s/he tries to emphasize precisely the shock that one action or another causes.

Iryna Slavinska: I wonder where this word that entered Ukrainian journalism came from. Naturally, we are not professional linguists. We would need to read a huge number of texts and carry out content analysis and record the frequency of this word’s usage. At any rate, we read a lot, and we see how the speech of those who are most read in Ukraine is changing. Can one understand the source of such attention to the word “chutzpah”? Who introduced it to the masses? 

Oksana Forostyna: I think that these were people who read English. Because in these texts there is a certain history behind the usage of this word.

Iryna Slavinska: Let’s tie in this political or political-science aspect. In my view, that of an outside observer and reader, it seems that the word “chutzpah” began to be used more often in 2019, although Oksana Forostyna reminded me that, in writing about Viktor Yanukovych’s regime for the journal Krytyka, she employed this concept in an interesting way in connection with how the regime was behaving.

Oksana Forostyna: At the time I was writing about Mykola Riabchuk’s essays. He used this word when he was writing about Yanukovych. It was 2010. A clan had come to power. And he described a milieu with this word, invoking the meaning in which chutzpah refers to the words and actions of people with nothing left to lose in principle. They have no social capital, and they cannot feel shame. In that way, they gain a certain advantage. Chutzpah is a way of paralyzing one’s opponent. While he is in shock, you can move forward. That’s why chutzpah is also a tactical advantage and the possibility of moving very quickly, without thinking about what people will say.

Riabchuk also used it when he was describing the Kremlin’s propagandists abroad, on the academic level. In other words, these are not just brutes of Putin’s regime who are in power or the Yanukovych clan in Ukraine, but also people who are supposedly from the academic world, but who behave in the very same way. And when such irreproachable and superficial people from academia are sitting around them, they are obviously shocked by this. Nor do they know how to give a symmetrical answer to that.

I think there’s a deeper level at work here. Chutzpah triggers not just shock; it can also spark admiration. This brutality can be breathtaking; it’s so disgusting that it’s beautiful. I think that this is a much more interesting phenomenon. Maybe someone will have the time and inspiration to research it.

Iryna Slavinska: There’s a dissertation topic for you. 

Oksana Forostyna: Yes. For example, Russophilism in Western academic or media circles, when these [Vladislav] Surkov-like personages supposedly cause indignation for decency’s sake but also spark certain admiration; as though this bear with a balalaika is funny but, on the other hand, there is something artistic about it. I think that this adulation of Russian brute force and the demonization of Putin—this is positive demonization.

Iryna Slavinska: The information war against Ukraine and chutzpah: To what extent is this an operative connection?

Oksana Forostyna: I think that this is one of its most capable instruments. I think that when all this was just starting, Riabchuk wrote about it. These lies are so brazen that they do not elicit an adequate response. If these are stupidities, then refuting them is tantamount to disrespecting oneself.

Iryna Slavinska: To sink to this level and argue against such theses. 

Oksana Forostyna: An absolutely absurd lie thus does not encounter any kind of resistance, and it becomes the status quo.

Iryna Slavinska: What can holding such a concept in one’s consciousness say about the contemporary world? I am not talking just about the Ukrainian context right now. Think Brexit before, during, and after, and perhaps Donald Trump’s tweets and other phenomena of our reality. 

Oksana Forostyna: Incidentally, here’s a very apt mention of Trump. Because, in my opinion, his latest trick—with Greenland, which he wants to buy—is an absolutely classic example of chutzpah; where there’s shock at first, and you don’t understand if the person is joking or not. Is this serious? And it begins to unfold, and a whole bunch of people are dragged into the whirlpool of absurdity.

Iryna Slavinska: And suddenly you’re commenting on the possibility or impossibility of Trump’s acquiring Greenland. 

Oksana Forostyna:  Yes, it’s absurd. In the past, this could have provided material for comedy. Chutzpah is an extreme manifestation of what has been evolving into a trend over the past hundred years or more; the most extreme manifestation of what has already become normalized. When expert opinion and authorities are scorned. When there are attacks on academic freedom in Western universities. When an invited guest is not allowed to deliver a lecture because, in the view of certain social groups, they are saying something incorrect. When people think that every thought, regardless of competence, is worthy of being expressed.

This is something that has been gradually unfolding since the beginning of the last century, and from time to time slips into extremes, like Bolshevism or fascism. It’s just that now we’re dealing with a nonviolent manifestation of that surge. Bolshevism was bloody, but Brexit and the advent of Trump are entirely democratic procedures. But by their nature, it’s the same thing.

Iryna Slavinska: Can one say that there is a demand among the wider public for what can be called chutzpah? 

Oksana Forostyna: I think that people who study Internet trends would agree with this. The more trash the better, whether we’re talking about television or Internet content. The latter simply allows this to be measured. Earlier, we could simply guess at it. Clearly, it is gaining clicks and repostings.

Iryna Slavinska:  Does this mean that intellectuals in Ukraine or other countries also need to arm themselves with chutzpah in order to promote the ideas of their works?

Oksana Forostyna: It’s difficult to say. On the one hand, this will likely have some effect. On the other, I don’t really believe that you can achieve any kind of fundamental changes because the very nature of these instruments works against serious content.

Iryna Slavinska: Is it anti-intellectual? 

Oksana Forostyna: Generally, yes. Since all business models are built according to the principle that more people must be involved, more clicks, shares, and comments, it’s obvious that content that is more emotionally loaded will win. Never will the website of an American scholarly journal be as popular as Justin Bieber’s Instagram account.

Iryna Slavinska: Or Kim Kardashian, the world’s top influencer. It just occurred to me that you could publish monographs with pictures. 

Oksana Forostyna: As far as I know, there are a lot of monographs with pictures out there. But they can’t compete with selfies or other photographs taken by influencers.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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