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Chewing over chutzpah with two ace practitioners of the craft

Elliott Jaffa, left, and Mason Harris at the Chutzpah Deli in Fairfax. Jaffa is a marketing psychologist who has taught people his brand of chutzpah since the 1980s. Harris is the author of “The Chutzpah Advantage.” (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

We’re at the Chutzpah Deli in Fairfax Towne Center and the chutzpah is so thick you could cut it with a knife then smear it on a bagel.

In one corner is Elliott Jaffa, 78, a marketing psychologist from Arlington who once taught an adult education class called “Chutzpa 101.” In the other is Mason Harris, 66, a motivational speaker from Gaithersburg who last year published a paperback called “The Chutzpah Advantage.”

Will the sparks fly over the chopped liver as each tries to out-chutzpah the other?

Well, no. I’ve surprised the pair by bringing them together for lunch, but it turns out they are brothers in chutzpah, eager to share their stories of a personality trait that, like a superpower, can be used for good or evil.

“My best story?” says Jaffa. “You know what the White House News Photographers dinner is? Reagan was president. This was before he got shot; security was different. It starts at 8 or 7:30. At 9 I leave my house in a tuxedo.”

Jaffa goes to the hotel, picks up a tray with an empty glass, puts a napkin over his arm, walks right into the ballroom.

“I had no interest in Reagan,” he says. “The speeches were over with. Half the people leave.”

Up next is the entertainment, the Statler Brothers.

“I’m a big Statlers fan,” Jaffa says. “I say, ‘Is this chair taken?’ I'm 15 feet from the stage. I'm in heaven!”

“That’s what I call ‘Oy Vey Chutzpah,’ ” says Harris. “It’s funny. It’s chutzpah that doesn’t hurt anybody.”

In his book, Harris attempts to codify chutzpah, parse it, structure it so it can be used by entrepreneurs and C-suite executives. He provides a mnemonic, with each of the word’s eight letters standing for a tip: C is for Carpe Diem; H is for Handling Objections; U is for Uncovering Need, etc.

“Is chutzpah good or bad?” Harris muses. “There are people who say chutzpah is definitely bad. It’s not respectful, it's arrogant, it's egotistical. My premise is you can use it for good or bad. For me, it’s a skill set.”

Jaffa started teaching his “Chutzpa 101” class at the Open University in the District in 1982, using examples from his own life, such as how he got into concerts (scan album liner notes for the manager’s name, then call the hotel, ask for the road manager and say you’re the manager’s nephew and need a ticket).

“When I started teaching the class, I had these made,” Jaffa says, pulling out a brass keychain engraved with “All good things come to those who ask.”

This is a man who trains people for trade shows and twice rented a baby elephant to draw traffic to a trade show booth.

To research his book, Harris interviewed people across the country, asking them to define chutzpah. In one Midwestern state — far from the nearest bowl of matzoh ball soup — someone said it sounded like another word: “gumption.” Harris met a Finn who said it reminded him of the Finnish word sisu, which means “strength or perseverance.”

“I found in my interviews over 40 different synonyms or descriptions of chutzpah,” says Harris, who grew up in New York City, the son of Holocaust survivors. His father came to America and became a baker. He was not overly endowed with chutzpah.

Neither was Jaffa’s father, whose colorful career included running an adult bookstore on Baltimore’s Block. This made Jaffa popular with his high school buddies. Jaffa is not someone who gets embarrassed. He doesn’t mind pushing the envelope.

His motto: “No one ever died from the word no.”

Harris says: “I don’t know that I have the range of stories Elliott has, but remember Mike Schmidt?”

Harris was in Florida when he saw Schmidt. He figured if he approached the Phillies player like a fawning fanboy — “Mike, you’re great. I’m such a big fan” — Schmidt would blow him off.

“I went up to him and said, ‘Mike, I think I have to apologize to you,' ” Harris says.

Jaffa sits up, game recognizing game. “There you go! That’s judo. You knocked him over.”

Harris says: “He looked up at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I may have said some unkind things about you after you hit a home run against my favorite team, the Mets.’ And he just started laughing.”

Jaffa is delighted. “See, that’s what you get.”

“It’s just how you approach people,” Harris says. “We're not afraid to stretch boundaries.”

“We have two different projects,” Jaffa says. “I'm doing the absurd. He’s got the eight letters.”

The world is big enough for all flavors of chutzpah.

Lunch over, Jaffa walks toward his Toyota Prius, the one with the personalized license plate that reads CHUTZPA.

“What bothers me most,” he says, “is when someone comes up to me and says ‘Where’s Chutz, Pennsylvania?’ ”

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