Free Kugel and Hot Shtreimels

It’s all well and good to talk in the abstract about the social capital that accrues from rituals, but how well do such claims hold up when we consider concrete examples? Take, for example, the chassidish custom of wearing a shtreimel (fur hat) on Shabbos and holidays and at family celebrations. Shimen and most of his friends in the Gerrer shtiebel abandoned their shtreimlech (that’s the proper pluralization) for reasons I’ll discuss down the line, but the greater mystery is why they and their ancestors – and some of their descendants – ever adopted the custom in the first place. To be sure, I am not interested here in the particular historical circumstances under which this specific custom was adopted (that is, which goyish or reformist decree needed to be defied at the time), but rather what, intended or unintended, social benefits such customs promote.

As any casual observer could hardly fail to note, a shtreimel is expensive, it isn’t very comfortable in the summer and it might attract unwanted attention on West End Avenue. All in all, it seems to be a rather costly quirk without much obvious payoff of the sort we discussed in the previous post.

In fact, viewed in broader anthropological context, a shtreimel in summer is a walk through the park. Some Shiite Muslims observe the holiday of Ashura by whipping themselves with blades on chains, some Australian aboriginal boys pass a bone through their urethras to, quite literally, mark their passage into manhood, participants in the Phuket Vegetarian Festival drive spikes through their cheeks and other soft tissue (as might I, if I were vegetarian), and bored youth all over the world cover their bodies in irremovable tattoos and pierce sensitive body parts. What’s this all about?

It’s actually pretty simple. Consider my dear friend, Free Rider, a bit of a schlemiel with poor financial prospects and no particular religious convictions. While wandering aimlessly through Boro Park, Free chances upon a chassidish wedding and, lo and behold, it looks like it’s open house for the after-dinner potato kugel. Free soon discovers that there’s a wedding in that particular congregation about five nights a week, there’s a kiddush on Shabbos, everybody is generous with charity and there are volunteer societies devoted to giving free loans, visiting the sick, matchmaking and providing free arbes (chickpeas) for sholom zochor celebrations. Free vaguely intuits that this system can only work if, on average, everybody in the congregation gives as much as they get, but he figures he’s just one person. Even if he contributes nothing, which is precisely his intention, how much kugel can he eat? Nobody will notice or care.

Unfortunately for the optimistic Mr. Rider, many others have thought similar thoughts and this particular congregation, as well as every other society on earth, would have long ago gone out of business had it been without means of smoking out Free Rider and his ilk. Every society requires that members, or wannabe members, signal that they’re serious about giving as much as they get and not just eating the kugel and running.

The trick of an effective signal for this purpose is that it must only be worth sending if you’re a good type, committed for the long haul. If anybody can send the signal, even Free Rider, then it wouldn’t be worth anything. Consider some roughly analogous situations. If you’ve opened a bank and want to signal potential depositors that you’re not running off to Brazil next week with their money, build a big marble building, since that kind of investment is only worthwhile if you intend to be in business for a long time. If you want to signal employers that you’re a productive worker, get a college degree; you might not learn anything relevant to the job or to anything at all, but you (presumably) couldn’t have gotten the degree without a modicum of intelligence and diligence. If you want to signal your fellow gang members that you’re not planning to grow up and go all middle-class on them, tattoo SATAN on your forehead; that’ll convincingly burn your bridges to bourgeois society. If you’re a peacock and want to convince the peahens that you’ve got what it takes, strut enough useless plumage to exhaust a lesser man.

Note that these signals work in different ways. The peacock’s plume simply can’t be mimicked by the unqualified. A college degree can be obtained by someone not especially bright or diligent, but it might require so much effort that it wouldn’t justify the investment. Tattoos work by burning bridges out of the gang, very much the way that not getting an education and not serving in the military burns bridges out of certain communities in Israel.

What all these signals have in common, though, is that they are costly. If they were cheap, Free Rider would mimic them. That shtreimel is persuasive only because it’s expensive, hot and marks you as an outsider in modern society. You’re going to have to consume a whole lot of free kugel before you recoup that investment, not to mention the cost of getting circumcised, learning Yinglish and possibly even having to eat petcha.

Note that, while I’ve portrayed these signals as barriers to entry for outsiders like Free Rider, they also work for veteran members of a community, who signal their ongoing commitment to each other, thus maintaining the group’s social capital. Signaling not only reflects commitment, but reinforces it; when I receive signals, my trust in the community is strengthened and when I send a signal, my investment in the community is increased. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that a study of 19th century communes, by anthropologist Richard Sosis, found that the longevity of a commune is positively correlated with the number of demands it makes of members.

Finally, I repeat an important disclaimer. I have claimed that many apparently bizarre social norms serve as signals that enable us to distinguish people we can trust from free riders. But this does not mean that this is the (sole) purpose of such norms or the reason we should observe them. Note, in particular, that peacocks don’t strut their plumes because they choose to signal their strength and virility; rather, the instinctive urge to strut plumes serves as such a signal and thus has certain advantages for fertility. Draw the appropriate analogies yourselves.

Signaling theory is actually more important for our general argument than might appear at first blush. To show why this is the case, I’ll devote the next post to a game-theoretic analysis of signaling.








3 thoughts on “Free Kugel and Hot Shtreimels

  1. Of course, one of the problems with signalling is that a signal might constitute something morally reprehensible. Treating everyone outside the group more poorly than you treat group members (ranging from verbal deprecation to the endorsement of lying, cheating,and stealing in one’s relationship with them and beyond) can help group cohesion while producing morally poor people. We need to be careful to consider the effects of what we signal beyond the first order effects.


    1. Moish’s post is descriptive as regards signaling, not prescriptive. The effect he’s discussing is achieved by both the shtreimel and the SATAN tattoo, but he’s not suggesting that they are therefore equally desirable.


  2. Doesn’t Heidi signal to her group as well? The exact signals will vary by subgroup, but this is true of Moish as well. As an MO I don’t signal via black hats and shtreimels, but by keeping Shabbat and bring food of my own when I eat with my co-workers in non-Kosher restaurants. Heidi may signal through eating cruelty free meat or eggs, or by not wearing fur or garments produced in sweatshops, or by liking particular bands, politicians, or TV shows. True Heidi’s signals change faster over time than Moishe’s does, but the principle can be the same.


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