Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Economics of Shtreimels

Dag highlights a piece in this week's Jewish Press (I guess it's pick on the JP week here) about an effort to stem the costs of marrying off children in the Satmar community. Here are some of the highlights:

On Monday, June 4 a large assembly took place, of Williamsburg Satmar yeshiva students, all of marriageable age. The focus of the meeting was the ongoing effort to stem the accelerating costs of marrying off children, particularly the cost of a shtreimel. Traditionally, the father of the kallah purchases two shtreimels for his future son-in-law. One, more expensive, is an elegant shtreimel meant to be worn under the chuppah, as well as for special occasions. The second, somewhat cheaper, is called a raigen shtreimel meant to be worn in inclement weather, thus preserving the other more costly shtreimel. The price of a first class, top-shelf shtreimel has exceeded $4,000.00.

The students at the meeting, future chassanim agreed to become part of Ateres Chassanim, and will not accept any shtreimel costing more than $1,200.


I think that this effort, while admirable, is flawed on several grounds:

Firstly, they addressed the wrong crowd. The assemblage was made up of young yeshiva students of marriageable age. They agreed to become part of a group that will not accept shtreimels costing over $1200. The crowd that they should have addressed was the fathers of girls of marriageable age. They are the ones spending the money, not the yeshiva students. If a prospective father-in-law wishes to dole out $4000 for his future son-in-law and presents him with an expensive shtreimel, what is the bochur going to do? Turn it down? Well, a few principled ones probably will... but the vast majority of them will accept it anyway, especially if his future father-in-law insists; and that would defeat the entire purpose. To make it more meaningful, they should have addressed the people who are doing the actual spending. They should have told them that they shouldn't spend so much on a shtreimel. Will some of them flout the decree and continue to spend more? Certainly... but it would still provide cover for those who don't want to (or can't) spend upwards of $4000 on a shtreimel.

Now, I'll admit that I don't know what the actual price of a shtreimel is. If it normally sells for less than $1200, then the next paragraph is not needed. If, however, it customarily sells for more, then this decree will still not work. Why? Simple economics.

Suppose the average cost of a shtreimel is $1500. That price, of course, is determined by market forces. It is reached by the combination of the fact that this represents the most that people are willing to spend for a shtreimel and the lowest amount of profit that the furrier is willing to accept. Unless the $1500 is an artificially high price, then a price cap imposed by the community is not going to work - market forces already dictate that $1500 is the lowest price that this commodity is going to be available at. If someone else could successfully sell them at $1400, then someone would certainly come along and do so to undercut the competition. The fact that no one has done so is because it is either impossible to make a decent profit at a lesser cost, or no one has come up with a more efficient way of making shtreimels which would reduce the cost of production, lowering the overall cost.

In any event, don't get me wrong. Despite the fact that I think the proposal is flawed, I sincerely hope that it is a success and that it proves me wrong. We should be doing everything in our power to facilitate people getting married and setting up Jewish homes... not setting up fur roadblocks.

Of course, I could go on about how a shtreimel really isn't necessary at all -- after all, not one single rav in the world will tell you that wearing a shtreimel is codified as halacha in the Shulchan Aruch or any other classic Jewish law text. Someone who is willing to buck the trend could easily save $1000, buy a nice hat, and be on halachic grounds that are just as secure. The $1000 could easily be put to better use helping the couple set up house, paying tuition at a yeshiva, or in some other manner. Normally, I wouldn't care -- after all, it's their money, they are free to spend it as they wish... but when it's clear that it's becoming a problem (as indicated by the need to have this gathering in the first place), then one has to start truly weighing the costs of whether money could be better spent on food and education than on fur.

The Wolf

17 comments:

Warren Burstein said...

Is it only their money? Every year during the megilla reading, there's a guy in a shtreimel in whichever shul I go to collecting tzedaka (I have no idea which hassidut he belongs to, I know there are people who can tell by the details of clothing, but I don't know how to do that). I give the guy one shekel because on Purim you give to whoever asks, but I can't help wondering how many people that hat could feed. I'd feel better about giving (and give more) to someone wearing a cheaper outfit, even if he's collecting for someone else, as he probably is.

Shira Salamone said...

Official disclaimer: As a Conservative Jew, I should probably keep my big mouth shut on this one.

It probably also doesn't help that I *hate* clothes shopping, and, basically, live in Land’s End purchased by phone . :)

That said, though, it boggles my mind that *anyone* would spend $4,000 for *any* one item of clothing *ever*! Isn't there a "bal tashchit" (prohibition against wastefulness) issue involved in spending that kind of money on an item of clothing not required by halachah?

DAG said...

Wolf....my reading was that less expensive shrteimels are available for less than $1200 and that the top of the line models are what goes beyond that. That being said, I have no idea why $1200 was chosen as the cutoff....



Shira...you can think of that Shtreimel as a wedding dress. People DO spend 4K+ on those. And the shtreimel has worth after the wedding as well!

That being said, I'm not sure why particular furs would be more desirable than others, except as a status symbol. THAT would defeat the purpose of wearing a shtreimel in the first place, IMHO

Ari Kinsberg said...

WOLF:

"Normally, I wouldn't care -- after all, it's their money, they are free to spend it as they wish"

think about this line the next time you are solicited to contribute to a hachnasat kallah fund for the chassidic velt.

"The crowd that they should have addressed was the fathers of girls of marriageable age."

it depends on what is the motivation to give these gifts. if it is to satisfy the expectations of the boys themselves, then they are the ones who need to be addressed.

in any case, it will be interesting to see how this will play out. if sumptuary laws can't succeed in a tight community like satmar, then they have no hope anywhere else.

Ari Kinsberg said...

DAG:

"you can think of that Shtreimel as a wedding dress. People DO spend 4K+ on those."

well that is ridiculous also

zach said...

you can think of that Shtreimel as a wedding dress. People DO spend 4K+ on those.

well that is ridiculous also


How about spending lots of moolah on fresh flowers that will die the next day? We rented silk flowers from a N'shei tzedakah organization in Boro Park.

One can also rent a gown from a tzedakah group; often these then use the money for hachnassas callah (my mother-in-law handmade gowns for all of her daughters which were then donated after the chassanah.)

Baal Devarim said...

Nice pontificating in theory, but in practice you are quite wrong. First, in practice, the chassanim get what they want, not what the future father-in-law wants. So this gathering was targeted at the right audience.

Second, while the market price for a shtreimel may currently be $4000, a move like this tends to bring the market price down in a hurry. There are ways to make nice-looking (if not quite as beautiful) shtreimlech for $1200 (and in fact,these are getting more popular lately) -- and this might be the final step that compels the shtreimel dealers to earnestly seek alternative methods and materials.

(I'm not asserting that this asifah will definitely bring about the desired outcome; I'm saying that if something is to be done, this is an excellent way to go about it -- at least for a start.

Ari Kinsberg said...

zach:

we wanted to rent from tzedakah, but we couldn't get out act together. we ended up renting from "one of a kind florist" and still saved a ton of money.

buying real flowers for simchas should be illegal. there is no bigger waste of money.

Warren Burstein said...

I was at two recent simchas in Israel, a bar and a bat mitzvah, where they put flowering potted plants on the tables, that way the guests take home something that will last for a while rather than something that gets thrown out in a few days.

I don't mind how much someone spends on their own wedding if they're not asking me to pay for it (I've heard stories of parents financing a simcha from the presents but do not know any real-life cases), so long as they don't put a "suggested contribution" amount in with the invitation.

Kmelion said...

I wonder if they'll have the Kallahs for a similar gathering regarding $4,000 custom, hand-made, human hair sheitels...

Eees said...

I think that both the fathers-in-law to be, as well as the future Chassanim should have been present at this shindig. As has been pointed out here by various commentators, both sides need to agree to not spend so much on the shtreimels in order for this to work.
(Oh, Kmelion beat me to the punch regarding those custom sheitels! :)

Zach Kessin said...

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that spending $1200 for a HAT. is a bit crazy (never mind $4k)

Shira Salamone said...

I'm with Zach--spending $1,200 for a hat *is* crazy. (Same for a sheitel, if you ask me, but then again, as a Conservative Jew, I have no idea how much a decent-looking sheitel costs.) Come on, guys, you can buy a perfectly respectable black kippah for, what, $30?

We tried to keep the fresh flowers to a minimum by planning to use the same two bouquets that had decorated the bima during the wedding for the reception upstairs in the synagogue social hall. Then we forgot to have them brought up anyway! Hmm, silk flowers would have been a good idea, but you're 30 years too late! :)

SephardiLady said...

First, in practice, the chassanim get what they want, not what the future father-in-law wants. So this gathering was targeted at the right audience.

This should be Purim material, but I'm afraid it's not.

Eees said...

Note to self:
Return Wolf's Father's Day shtreimel ;)

triLcat said...

humn. I got my wedding dress from a gemach, so it didn't come up, but here in Israel, you can have a dress custom made for you for about $1,000 (which also seems fairly crazy to me.)

A decent shaitel runs upwards of $500, which is part of the reason I wear hats/scarves/bandannas. For that kind of money, I can afford a different one for every shirt I own and still have money left over.

Thank G-d, my husband is not the type for a shtreimel. I have enough issues with his hats (he has 2, both of which he bought for himself) being made of dead animals.

As for gifts... he gave me an engagement ring & wedding ring. the engagement ring is gorgeous, but we went for small, because I just couldn't see wearing rock that cost.... well, too much. The wedding ring is very simple, but hey, that's what a wedding ring is.

I bought him a tallis, kittel, tallis bag, and tfillin bag. (he had all of the above left from his first marriage, but I felt that a new marriage warranted a new "wardrobe."

In addition, in the yichud room, he gave me a necklace (with an ice-cream cone charm, because I LOVE ice cream). I later gave him a wedding band, which he wears on a dog-tag-type chain around his neck, because he can't stand having it on his finger. We also exchanged some small sentimental gifts right around then, like a fuzzy blanket, a pillow, a few keychains...

And as for flowers for the wedding - I think we spent about $250...including my bouquet, little crowns for all my nieces, boutinears (I know I misspelled that) for all the men in the immediate family, and rose petals on each table. The owner of the hall threw in centerpieces which were incredible and had us seriously shocked. We had decided on inexpensive candles (we bought candles and candlesticks at a local "dollar" store). The flowers on the table were a seriously nice bonus.

Another thing I think is a big waste is the open bar. I didn't want anyone getting shikkur at my wedding. We had a bottle of Glenfiddich at the tisch, and then 2 bottles of wine(one red, one white) at each table. Saved a small fortune and no one got drunk, but there was what to make a l'chayim over.

triLcat said...

one caveat about all of the above - we're a lot older than many people getting married now (we got married when husband was 33 and I was 27), and we felt no need to impress anyone with anything.

All of our friends were married so long ago that there's nothing to compare to... it took a lot of stress off of us. We ended up having an inexpensive but really fun wedding.