Israel Pulse

Israeli photographers seek to define 'chutzpah'

Article Summary
A recent photo exhibition examined whether "chutzpah," an Israeli word that has been exported into English and other languages, refers to vulgarity and disrespect or originality and guts.

"Chutzpah" is not just a Hebrew word. Other languages also recognize the word as a trait that is ubiquitous in the Jewish persona. The word appears in the Book of Daniel (2:15), albeit with a different meaning, and later in the Babylonian Talmud. Chutzpah eventually made its way into Yiddish and is frequently used in English and German.

"Chutzpah" has also appeared in fiction and nonfiction: Science fiction author Isaac Asimov had a spaceship named “Chutzpah” in his “Nine Tomorrows” book of short stories and "Chutzpah" also is the name of a nonfiction book about the Jewish people in the United States by attorney Alan Dershowitz.

The English-speaking world generally uses chutzpah with a positive connotation — someone who is bold, has grit and acts outside the box. By contrast, in Israel, the term carries more of a negative connotation and describes the actions of people who try to get something they want by ignoring the needs of others or harming them. It describes rude behavior toward others, even vulgarity.

The Holon Institute of Technology, an academic body that integrates art and technology, attempted to examine the meaning of the expression “Israeli chutzpah” through the lens of photographers. Michal Chill, the head of the institute's library and the curator of the exhibition, put out an appeal last year on social networks for photographers — both professional and amateur — to send her their photographs with their interpretation of the term “chutzpah.”

The exhibit opened Jan. 2 and ran until Feb. 8 at the institute in Holon, a city south of Tel Aviv.

Chill told Al-Monitor that the positive aspects of the word in its Yiddish pronunciation (as it is used abroad) captured more space in the exhibition than she had anticipated. “We did receive many pictures of Israeli garbage and vulgarity [that addressed “chutzpah”] with its negative connotation, but that was not all. Many of the pictures expressed bravery, originality and fearlessness. While selecting [the photos for display] among the many pictures we received, we ourselves underwent a real process,” she said. “More and more pictures presented original, daring things to express Israeli chutzpah.”

What transforms chutzpah into an Israeli trait? Chill argued that the very establishment of the Jewish state in the heart of an Arab region can be viewed as a type of unusual bravery or audaciousness. The same holds true for some of Israel’s military operations and even the establishment of the nuclear reactor in Dimona. “When the photographers asked what direction to take [in representing the term], we gave them full freedom to express chutzpah through their own eyes, wherever it took them,” she said.

One photo submitted by Dafna Yosha represented feminist audacity with a photo of three full-figured, aged women on a beach, with bathing suits that do not exactly compliment them. The photo caption read: “The bravery of Israeli women who publicly challenge a world that sanctifies the concept of beauty as exemplified by pencil-thin models.”

Tel Aviv photographer Dafna Yosha’s photo, from her series “Street Art Tel Aviv,” challenges the concept of beauty. (photo by Dafna Yosha)

Three photographs by Dubi Feiner were selected for the exhibit, but one was removed due to the opposition of an ultra-Orthodox man who did not like the way he was portrayed. Feiner told Al-Monitor that when the curator of the exhibit turned to him with the idea of “Israeli chutzpah,” he could not think of any picture he had taken previously that would fit the bill. “I had to really think about it. In the past when I was a newspaper photographer, I observed things with a more critical eye. I assume that at the time I would have chosen less positive photos to exemplify chutzpah,” he said.

The theme he chose to adopt for his contributions to the exhibit was “creative externalization,” namely extroverted creative behavior. According to Feiner, Israelis like to use creative means to “externalize” themselves, to show off their courage or their willingness to adopt unconventional behaviors. This led him to create a picture in the “trash the dress” style in which we see couples who have already married splashing about in water, in the sea or even in foodstuffs or mud, wearing their wedding outfits. Ostensibly they are “destroying” their sumptuous clothes acquired specially for the festive occasion.

Even though this wedding photography trend didn’t start in Israel, Feiner said it truly characterizes Israelis, who also tend to take freakish, startling actions in public spaces. In the exhibit he displayed a photograph in which a couple wearing wedding clothes are lying down under a waterfall, completely wet, while the wedding photographer photographs them while he is lying on a rock above the waterfall, a daring act in and of itself. Feiner said that only meters away from the couple being photographed were several ultra-Orthodox youths splashing about in the water. The couple represents the provocative Israeli character that wants to show it is not embarrassed to be daring and audacious in front of a crowd of passersby.

Feiner’s second photograph shows a couple spending time with their child at the airport in Tel Aviv on a wooden balcony looking out on the ocean. Although they are in a public place, the parents are lying down and embracing one another, ignoring the people around them, as if to say, “We can do anything we want, wherever we want.” Feiner views this as a clear expression of the Israeli perception of freedom. According to him, no other people in the world can allow themselves to act like this — neither Europeans nor Americans nor citizens of other countries in the Middle East — only the Israelis.

Nino Herman shows four young people splashing their feet in a blow-up pool placed in the middle of the sidewalk, seemingly unaware that they are blocking everyone’s way. (photo by Nino Herman)

Photographer Nino Herman displayed a picture in which four Tel Aviv young people are, on a hot summer day, splashing their feet in a blow-up pool placed in the middle of the sidewalk, while blocking passage for everyone else. One of the young men has turned his face to the camera with an expression of defiance.

Yigal Ofir’s photo presented a street artist painting graffiti in black and white, while only wearing underpants and a scarf on his head. The stance of the artist implies that he is not even aware of being half naked, or at least not at all concerned by it. He doesn’t even view himself as being especially daring.

A photographer called Milik presents an image of an ultra-Orthodox boy with long sidelocks who is smoking and holding a cup in his hands, evidently an alcoholic drink. Here the defiance is also internal, toward ultra-Orthodox society and its customs. His prayer shawl hangs on him with pretentious negligence and his hair is disheveled surrounding the wide skullcap that characterizes the Hasidim of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Do all these represent Israeli chutzpah? Chill said that many of those who visited the exhibition left saying simply, "Indeed, these [faces, images] are us."

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Found in: Cultural heritage

Danny Zaken is a journalist who works for the Israeli public radio station Kol Israel. Zaken has covered military and security affairs, West Bank settlers and Palestinian topics. He was a Knight Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan and completed the BBC Academy's journalism program. Zaken lecturers on media and journalism at the Hebrew University, the Mandel School and the Interdiscinplinary Center Herzliya. He is the former chair of the Jerusalem Journalists Association.

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