Who knows? Not me

I think I’m going to practice not feeling the need to know stuff for a little while. Feel free to call me ignorant. I’ll consider it a compliment.

Shabbat goy 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shabbat goy 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Back in the day, I lived and worked near Stamford Hill, the North London neighborhood that is home to a large haredi (ultra- Orthodox) community. The community – as one might expect – is pretty self-contained in a harmless enough manner: Aside from the very rare occasion when work duties put me in contact with the odd member here and there, I was rather ignorant about the community and its customs. They were there, I was not and that worked for me just fine.
I could identify them as Orthodox Jews when I saw them, though. How so? With the blokes, it’s quite obvious: the hats, the frock coats, the peyot and so on. But what about the women? Well, I was out walking with my younger sister one day when we passed a mother with a couple of kids in tow. Isn’t it odd, I remarked after a discreet interval, that all the haredi women in Stamford Hill have the same hairdo?
This was a while ago, before Mrs. Goy, and at the time I knew very little... OK, nothing at all about the intricate details of observant Jewish life. My sister, however, had been to school with, and remained friendly with a few Jewish girls. Thus, she had a bit more knowledge about these things.
“You’re joking, aren’t you?” She stared at me as if I had lost my mind. (Actually, she does this a lot. We’re collaborating on a project at the moment, and I get The Stare at least a half dozen times a day. Even via email. Such is life.)
"You do know that married observant women wear wigs, don’t you?”
As a matter of fact, I didn’t. Suddenly, it all made sense. Up until then, I’d assumed that some lucky person had cornered the market and was making an absolute killing on the hairdressing front in Stamford Hill... meanwhile, my sister shook her head pityingly as we walked on.
“Akin, sometimes you can be so ignorant.”
She’s right about that, I guess. But that’s OK. I can live with being thought of thus.
It’s self-evident – well, I think it is self-evident – that our limitations prevent us from knowing and from understanding everything we need to know about the world around us. Take money and economics, for example. We all need money, we all use money, we all have some idea of its worth. But the fine detail? You know, macro-economic stuff like inflation, quantitative easing, interest rates and so on. All this is like so much biblical Hebrew to me. But it does have an effect on my bottom line, i.e. how much money I have in my pocket and how far it will take me each month. (Not much and not very far, since you ask.)
So with stuff like this, I’m happy to own up to my ignorance and outsource the fine detail about how money makes the world go round to the professional people, like economists. (Actually, this is a bad example. Based on their track record, economists seem to know as much about the intricacies of financial systems as those fellows who used to foretell the future by reading an animal’s entrails. Then barbecuing the edible bits. But you get my general point.)
At some point, everyone must come to the realization that it is impossible to have a comprehensive, accurate handle on all the issues that matter to them, or that have an impact on them in some way or the other. This is what I like to think of as ignorance. And frankly, it is quite a liberating position to be in, not being afraid of saying “I don’t know, actually” from time to time.
Or – as is often the case with me – making a fool of myself from time to time but at least being open to the possibility of being set right by another person. (I have to admit though, it rankles, being set right by my younger sister.)
Israel, it’s fair to say, is one of those places where everyone has strong opinions. It’s also one of those places about which almost everyone has a strong opinion. (The two may be connected.) Unfortunately, strong opinions and admissions of ignorance do not make for very happy bedfellows.
I’ve been elsewhere for the past month, and engaging with Israeli issues at a physical and emotional remove made for a very interesting experience. It’s been an eventful summer; the so-called “infiltrator” issue, the state of the economy, the difficulties about Iran getting the bomb.
They are all important issues, of course: but engaging with the absolute certitude with which people – Israelis and others – go on about all things Israeli becomes almost comical if done from a detached perspective. I’m not sure what it is about our age; maybe it is the 24-hour news cycle, Google and Wikipedia, the constant flow of information, the democratization of opinion forming and dissemination thanks to Facebook and Twitter.
But you know, I kinda miss those innocent days – and maybe this is false nostalgia, but indulge me here – where people would just own up and say, “you know, I haven’t a clue. Let me find out and I’ll get back to you.” I think I’m going to practice not feeling the need to know stuff for a little while. Feel free to call me ignorant. I’ll consider it a compliment.
ON THE subject of ignorance about dress codes: Once, I had lunch with a friend, a lawyer, in Chicago’s business district. I’d tried to make an effort to smarten myself up, but I still looked distinctly scruffy in my denim and T-shirt amid the suits and ties of the city’s business elite. As we ate, a man walked past. He clearly paid attention to his appearance – he had a neatly groomed beard – but with his suit was sporting an incongruous baseball cap.
My friend, something of a fashionista, had just finished telling me off for my distinctly underwhelming attire – and I blame Israeli dress codes for this, by the way – when the suit ‘n’ baseball cap combo caught his eye. “What’s that all about?” he exclaimed.
“Oh, he’s probably an observant Jew,” I replied, explaining that the cap either covered or served as substitute for a kippa. “He’s probably not a bad dresser by nature.”
“Ah.” My friend mused over this for a moment. “But that suit is absolutely appalling...”
There’s no pleasing some people, is there?