such a maven
What is one whom others trust as expert, learned, experienced in a field when deep in one’s heart one knows that one knows nothing? Comes to mind years ago on the grounds of Cove School, my friend Parker telling me the proverb that’s stuck with me, part of which goes “He who knows not and knows he knows not: he is simple - teach him.” Simple doesn’t quite fit: it would be the right word standing among a group of scholars I admire, and even deep in one of their books where I don’t need to crawl into the woodwork. Humble doesn’t get it either, I’m, as the saying goes, quite proud of my humility; so my mind muddles on to another saying, “I don’t have an inferiority complex, I really am inferior,” yep that’s me.
This week Anu is doing words from Yiddish, which makes me self-conscious because I know just enough German that I should know to keep my stupid mouth shut, and I don’t even know that much Hebrew, the tetragrammaton period full stop, but my ignorance doesn’t stop me from mentoring a Bible Seminar and Adult Sunday School class and even climbing into a pulpit now and again. I’m thinking about author Harry Golden, a lifelong favorite sage and writer.
Reminiscing about his early 20th century childhood as a Jew in the NYC garment district, Harry Golden remembers the drill of being taken by his mother to buy him a suit. There was a -- my word would be liturgy -- for the process that had to be executed just so. Several family members would go along not only to enjoy and help approve the selecting process, but to convey firmness and make sure no shopkeeper thought he could pull a fast one. There would be a member of the family, or perhaps a friend, who knew fabrics and what was a good deal and how to shop and bargain so as to get the very best buy possible. For Harry’s first new suit the expedition included, as I recall, an uncle who was known in the family as a maven who knew materials, cloth, fabrics. He was the right person to take along.
But there was far more to the liturgy. One had to tough bargain, provoke and humiliate the shopkeeper, tell him what a dirty cheat he was, with this crumby, shabby piece of garbage he was trying to put off on them at an exorbitant, robber price. You had to get mad and stalk out of the store in disgust several times and make him chase you down the sidewalk apologizing and offering a better deal and get you back into his shop before you finally agreed to a price. It was an art, buying a suit was an art, a real art.
With one unforgivable slip of the tongue, Harry’s uncle the maven ruined the entire expedition. After storming out of several suit shops exclaiming about what cheap trash was being offered at such robber prices, the party had finally settled into one shop and on one suit for Harry. Seems to me it was brown, maybe double-breasted. Maybe it was for Harry’s bar mitzvah, I don’t remember. They were examining the suit and doing the required chattering about how ugly it was, and how cheaply made, and that the asking price was thievery. Harry’s uncle, who as I recall worked in a garment factory and was reputed to know fabrics picked up the suit and looked at it. Fingering the fabric, he murmured, “Not a bad piece of goods.”
Harry’s mother was shocked, infuriated. Furious. Saying, “not a bad piece of goods” instead of “cheap junk, poorly made” he had destroyed her bargaining position. This was a twelve-dollar suit that they should have been able to walk out with for six dollars. The best they could do because of the uncle’s outrageous stupidity in uttering “not a bad piece of goods” in the shopkeeper’s hearing, was eight dollars. Ultimately they bought the suit, which would do Harry for years, but his mother fumed all the way home. “Such a maven,” she mocked the uncle, “‘Not a bad piece of goods’, such a maven.” Scoffed and sneered, the uncle was humiliated.
That’s me in Sunday School and Bible Study and in the pulpit. I know not, but they don’t know that, do they. Priest and holy man, I’m their maven, expert, experienced and learned, seminary trained. Seminary Educated. I even reinforce the image by wearing this stupid black shirt and white collar, and pushing forward as if I knew what I'm talking about. Only if there’s other clergy in the room do I hem and haw and hedge. Such a maven.
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