We all had our fill of hamantaschen recently, so I thought we should pause and, in proper post-Purim spirit, focus on Mordechai-taschen. “What’s that!” you ask? Why, Mordechai’s version of a hat, of course. You see, the origin of our favorite three-cornered baked treats, it is said, was the triangular shape of the evil Haman’s hat. But have we ever considered what Mordechai’s hat looked like? Folks I think it must have been a Borsalino. What else?
I embarked on this quest for Mordechai’s head covering due to a recent item in the frum media, which reported on a Borsalino boycott. It apparently started with a group of Chabad yeshiva bachurim who were angry at the price spike on this frum essential to an unacceptable $300 and decided to take action. This unprecedented tactic has since spread to other circles.
What is the likely outcome of the boycott? I don’t know. Perhaps it will bring the venerable Italian company to its knees. Maybe they will take out full-page ads in the Jewish Press, Hamodia, the Yated, and the Where What When, in which they apologize and vow to lower the price. Or maybe not. But even if they succumb and lower the price, it could turn out to be counterproductive, as I will discuss below.
Before I do, I would like to clearly state that I am not addressing the bar mitzva hat. This is an issue of peer pressure, an issue that also affects many other aspects of family simchas. In this article, I am addressing adults and only dealing with the financial part.
The Chofetz Chaim Video and Hats
Let’s segue for a minute to a momentous news item: the Chofetz Chaim video that surfaced in late February. This absolutely amazing discovery of footage taken at the first Agudath Israel convention in Vienna, in 1923, ranks up there in significance with the Dead Sea scrolls and the Cairo geniza, in my opinion. Seeing the Chofetz Chaim walking is amazing, beyond words. Wow! The second amazing thing is the other famous rabbis. Yet another fantastic aspect is seeing the balabatim, the ordinary Orthodox Jews who attended. This is a walk through a time machine.
I noticed that everyone is wearing a hat: Rabbi hats, Rebbe hats, and top hats; dapper young men in modern fedoras and teenagers in simple caps. Some have cool-looking flattop straw models, and others sport bowler hats, looking like they stepped off a Charlie Chaplin movie set.
For many of us hats are important. (Remember the kohain gadol wore a fancier hat than the regular kohainim.) A hat is not a pair of pajamas. Hats play an important role in how we present ourselves to the world and, indeed, define us – to the point that even small nuances in yarmulkes are socially significant. But this is not an article about fashion, sociology, or religion. It is about much to pay for a superior hat.
Who says it’s superior? I am neither tailor nor hat-maker. I don’t know fabrics or felts. But let’s assume that Borsalino offers a better product; they are clearly the preferred hat among a large subset of Jews. So how much “should” one pay for a good hat and is a boycott justified?
The Economics of Boycotts
Let’s say that the supply of fish is controlled by a monopoly. This one company, which sells fish to the entire area, gets greedy and decides to raise the price. We the consumers are held hostage, since we can buy this essential product from no one but that company. In such a case, the only thing the consumer can do for relief is boycott, and such action has occurred in Jewish history.
But what if a luxury item is overpriced? Let’s say there is healthy competition among Ford, Chevy, and Toyota, but Mercedes Benz cars are overpriced. What is the consumer to do? Hey folks, just don’t buy a Mercedes.
According to this analogy, it seems to me that if one thinks the Borsalino is overpriced, he should simply buy a different fedora. Why the fuss? The Ferster family in Israel manufactures the Brandalino in Hungary, and there are offerings made in Poland that cost even less. All these are felt hats made from rabbit fur. Moreover, by saying that, if you cannot afford a Borsalino, you will not wear any other brand, you are telling the Borsalino company that they are it. You are stating that the other fedoras just don’t measure up and you are at their mercy. Wouldn’t this give them an incentive to raise the price even further?
Indeed, internet finance guru Dansdeals.com picked up on this and said, “The answer is rather simple: Wear a $40 fedora you can find on Amazon during the week, and save the Borsalino for Shabbos. You should easily be able to get a decade out of a hat worn just once a week.”
“They Are Making a Fortune”
The act of boycotting sometimes has its roots in the feeling of being taken advantage of. A common mistake I see is people assuming they have a handle on a business’s profits. People imagine that hand matza must be earning millions and seminaries in Israel are obviously making money hand over fist. Yet, an article in Mishpacha magazine about the boycott described a visit to the Borsalino factory in Italy. Based on what they observed, the writers walked away surprised that the hats were only $300! It is apparently quite a complex process to make those hats – complete with secret methods – and Italian labor is expensive due to socialism and unions. Does anyone want the company to compromise on quality? Like many other products, hats are a blind article. That means that if the company started cutting corners, the lower quality would not be discovered for a while. It may therefore be self-defeating to force a lower price. (Furthermore, I saw a news piece that the company is actually in bankruptcy!)
The Family Budget
This issue came to a “head” when the price of a Borsalino went up by $50 to $300. Is that an unreasonable hike? I spent $125 to $150 on a Borsalino for my wedding 30 years ago. That means the price has risen 2.5 to 3 percent annually, on par with inflation. When compared to salaries, I bet it cost more in the ’50s and ’60s than it does today. I know it is hard to pay the increased price – I’m just saying it is not so simple to analyze the numbers and percentages to determine what is “fair.”
The boycotters might say it is too much to spend at one time. This is a budget issue. When it comes to the family budget, I always explain that the high-priced items are generally not the culprit. The extra $100 you spend on a wristwatch once in 15 years is no big deal. On the contrary, it is the small, wasteful expenditures that wreck the budget. They are the villain. Indeed, I wrote an article a year ago in the Where What When, called “The Importance of Buying Expensive Things You Cannot Afford,” where I discuss when it might be wise to buy the better product.
Half-Off Borsalino Sale!
Okay, that subhead was just to get your attention. But you do in essence get half off the price of a hat if you take care of it. It should never be exposed to rain or snow. When not in use, it should be kept in the box, not on a hook or a shelf. Don’t casually toss it on the couch or on the back seat of the car. If you take care of it, the hat will last twice as long as you thought it would.
I am not pushing high-priced merchandise; I personally have a Hungarian Brandalino. But if something is important to you, it may be worth the price. I would therefore conclude that, if you like your Borsalino, keep your Borsalino!
Eli Pollock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.