One Sunday afternoon, many years ago in Iowa City, I was trying desperately to charm my then-boyfriend’s parents.
We were all riding in his parents’ car. His dad was driving. His mother sat in front seat. Guy and I were in the back. And I did fine the majority of the trip.
The fellow I was dating at the time was a chef — a good one. When I got the job at the cafe where he cheffed, I knew nothing about food beyond Mom’s spaghetti and my young-adult version of it.* But this person, this chef, taught me how to eat. He showed me the world of fresh food beautifully prepared and it changed my life because I love my family, would die for my family, respect and value my family — but my family is not a food family. That’s okay! But when I learned how to eat (and how to cook) because of the chef, life tasted different. And I like different.
So we’re in the folks’ Beemer and Chef’s lovely, intelligent, handsome mother asks me this or that question about this or that thing. I have the occasion to use a word that I liked — liked, past tense: chutzpah. Great word. Yiddish. Means “shameless audacity, impudence.” Like, “He had the chutzpah to run for class president after pulling that stunt in gym class.” I knew how to use the word. But I didn’t know that chutzpah was pronounced “HOOTZ-pah” and ideally, one should do that Yiddish glottal cough thing with the “H” sound. I didn’t know any of that. Your hapless heroine pronounced it, “CHUTT-spa.” Hard “CHUTT.” Spa.
These people were Jewish. By the way.
Chef’s mother made this sound that was half-gasp, half-snort and turned back to look at me with kindness but great, great mirth. “Honey, you pronounce it ‘HOOTZ-pah.” I cocked my head to the side.
“Ha. Ah. I see. Well, you know, then, ha. Ha, then. It’s… She had HOOTZ-pah. For the thing. Are we close? I think we’re close.”
Over a decade! Over a decade since I said “CHUTT-spa” in a car with three Jewish people all with generous Yiddish vocabularies and I still can’t forget it. I thought about it today because I saw the word in an article and that’s a pain because the chutzpah memory starts a machine in my head that spits out all the other times I’ve mispronounced words in mixed company. I was at a fancy lunch meeting once — one example — and ordered the endive salad. I said, “I’ll have the EN-dive salad, please.” The waitress repeated back, “The ahhn-DEEVE salad?” and I wanted to stick my head under the tablecloth.
Turns out you can say “ahn-DEEVE” or “EN-dive.” Both are okay. But there’s just one chutzpah.
*Note: Both versions = amazing