Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Gypsies, Jews and Amish

It is a book I want someone to write. The three groups are in many ways similar, in many different. Each has, for substantial parts of its history, been effectively self governing, imposing its own rules on its own people with or without the permission of the government over it. Each has created and maintained its own culture, complete with its own language. Each imposed constraints on its members that might be expected to make them want to exit the group, and each found ways of keeping most of the members from doing so.

All of the Amish and many of the other two groups ended up in North America, a more tolerant and accepting environment than those they experienced in the past. The Jewish group has mostly dissolved in the wider culture–only about ten percent remain orthodox, and many even of the orthodox are more nearly a part of the surrounding culture than most Jews were a few hundred years ago. Only the more extreme factions, such as the Hasidim, retain the traditional pattern of cultural separation.

The Romani, as I interpret the evidence, are a little farther behind on the same path. For evidence, compare two books on the American Romani by Anne Sutherland, Gypsies: The Hidden Americans and Roma: Modern American Gypsies. The first, based on research done around 1970, described an independent and alien nation with its own language, law, and customs, embedded within modern day America. The second, published last year, describes the gradual collapse of that system.

Only the Amish have been almost completely successful in maintaining their own society, peacefully embedded in ours. They have done it for more than two centuries now and, judging by its current state, may well continue for another century or two. 

Which raises an interesting puzzle.

Those interested in more details on all three will find them in the relevant chapters of the book on legal systems very different from ours that I have almost finished writing.

When someone got very sick, they all flocked to the hospital and to the funeral. The living were never left alone day or night. Everyone brought food or took up a collection for the family so ones far away could come. People took care of each other. That is gone now. In the past anyone could drop by the house and you would feed them, they could stay the night. Now you have to phone if you want to visit, and they often say, “No. We are busy.” Someone throws a party and makes a lot of food and hardly anyone shows up. The saddest thing is the loss of community. We never visit with the Machwaya. They keep to themselves and we keep to ourselves.

The Machwaya still have the slava and pomani and kris. They are mostly not Christian and only go to a priest for baptism of a baby. The ones who have become Christian have their own churches and we do not go to their churches, and they do not come to ours. In the past we all were part of the kumpania, we had slavi together, and we all went to the pomani. Now everyone keeps to his own kind. The children are not taught our language, go to school, and have no respect for elders. We don’t even have any elders anymore. They are all dead.

(Sutherland, Anne H., Roma: Modern American Gypsies)


Richard Ober Hammer said...

I just noticed that Stanford University Press publishes a series named The Cultural Lives of Law, in case you are scouting for a publisher.

David Friedman said...

Richard: Thanks. I am not doing so quite yet, but it is a possibility.

Jonathan said...

Happy birthday! (off topic)

Peter Chapman said...

The three groups that you list are all "stem family" cultures in which the children do not free themselves of their parents' influence until their parents die and children are treated unequally by their parents, with the eldest male usually inheriting everything. This is all explained by Emmanuel Todd in "explanation of "Ideology".

albatross said...

I'm curious if you've looked at the evolutionary/genetic side of these three groups' isolation.

I think the interesting questions come down to gene flow in and out of the isolated population, and selection effects within the population.

For example, I think a fair number of Amish kids drift away into the surrounding culture. You can imagine that having an interesting evolutionary effect--if there are genes that make you less likely to fit comfortably in Amish culture, you'd expect those genes to become less common over time in the Amish, as the people with those genes tend to leave more often than the ones without them. (I've seen this described as "boiling off.")

You could find out whether the group was genetically isolated from its surrounding population with DNA tests, but I think you could get a pretty good idea by just looking to see if your group has distinctive looks, or genetic diseases that are rare in the surrounding population. One way you can tell that Eastern European Jews were pretty isolated from other Eastern Europeans is that they have genetic diseases that are very different. You could imagine groups remaining culturally separate but genetically very close to their surrounding population, or being both culturally and genetically separate. (It's hard to imagine being genetically separate but not culturally separate, since the natural state of human affairs is to marry the people around you.)

Greg Cochran has thought a lot about this stuff, and I know he published some papers speculating that the higher average Jewish IQ came from some effect of this kind.

The other sense in which the evolutionary side of this is interesting, to me, is to think in terms of survivorship. There must have been hundreds of isolated populations (ethnic, religious, whatever) in Europe and North America over time, but most of them have faded into the surrounding culture, the way Jews seem to be doing to a large extent in the US. It's interesting to ask why these groups (especially Jews and Gypsies, who have a really long history of not assimilating, across a lot of different countries and cultures) have managed to retain their unique identities.

Anonymous said...

There was an interesting lecture by rabbi dovid gottlieb of ohr sameach called 'historical verification of the torah' in which he discussed common traits as well as differences between the jews and gypsies...the relevant segment was in response to claims that various religions stood the test of time like the jews thru much turmoil and anguish. The rabbi refuted the claims citing that gypsy religion was neither stagnant nor unified.

Tom Mazanec said...

Interesting site on the Amish community and leaving it, by a woman who helps those who leave:

David Friedman said...


So far as I can tell, in neither the Amish nor the Romani culture does the eldest male inherit everything. One of the Amish sons ends up with the farm, assuming it doesn't get divided to provide for more than one, but I have seen nothing implying that it is automatically the eldest. And the parents typically help sons who do not get the farm to buy a farm if that is practical.

David Friedman said...


The Amish lose ten to twenty percent each generation, which over a long time could be a sizable effect. They have a very small starting gene pool and almost no additions to it, with the result that some genetic diseases are much more common among them than elsewhere, others don't occur at all.

Milhouse said...

I don't know about the other two, but among Jews the oldest son has never inherited everything. Traditional Jewish inheritance law gives the oldest son two shares in the estate, and the other sons one share each. The widow and daughters don't inherit anything, but are to be maintained out of the estate until they marry or (in the case of the daughters) reach adulthood. If there are no sons the daughters divide everything equally.

Miguel Madeira said...

A difference could be that, traditionally, Jews and Gypsies are seminomadic traders and Amish sedentary farmers?

Peter Chapman said...

I think we are getting hung up on details here. The distinguishing features of an authoritarian (or stem) family are (1) the children are not free to live their own lives until the parents die and (2) the children are not treated equally.

David Friedman said...


In the case of the Romani, I think a more precise statement would be that the children are not free to live their own lives until the parents either die or become senile.

For the Amish, my impression is that once a child is married and self-sufficient, has his own farm or business or job, he is no longer controlled by his parents. One of the sons, presumably the one who gets the farm, will have his parents living in the grandfather house of the farm, but I have not seen anything suggesting that they will be in charge even there.

Nor do I recall seeing anything implying that adult Jewish children are under the control of their parents. So far as marriage is concerned, under Rabbinic law adult children do not require parental approval to marry, and the age of adulthood is young--twelve and half for women. Communal law sometimes attempted to impose additional restrictions, but that was problematic.

Anonymous said...

Serious inquiry into these groups will quickly become non-PC. As a fellow Hebrew I enjoyed 'the people that shall dwell alone' by Kevin Macdonald [1].

I don't recall if it had anything about Amish, but it had very interesting chapters about Gypsies and also IIRC Parsis and Overseas Chinese.
I haven't read his other books.


TheVidra said...

The Amish are the majority population in their geographical area, whereas Jews and Gypsies are minorities spread among a different majority population - could this explain things? (Jews tend to be much more traditional in places such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, in neighborhoods where they form the majority; a similar thing can be observed with Gypsies in their villages or parts of towns like Buzescu, where they sleep in tents outside of their palaces and follow more traditions, when they are more concentrated demographically).

David Friedman said...

My information is mostly on the American Vlach Rom, who are not, so far as I know, a majority anywhere. The Amish might be a majority very locally, but checking the population for Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is the second largest settlement and the oldest large one, the Amish are only a little over five percent of the county's population.

I agree that population concentration might well encourage the maintenance of a distinct subculture.

Miguel Madeira said...

Perhaps it simply a question of definition? What makes an Amish an Amish is to follow a set of rules and live in a certain way. In contrast, Gypsy is an ethnic thing (you are gypsy if your ancestors are gyspsy, if if you are a partner in a big law firm), and in practice Jew is also more ethnic that religious.

The result is that, if an Amish leave his community, he is no longer an Amish (in contrast with "westernized Gypsies" or "secular Jews"), meaning that all Amish, by definition, leave by the Amish rules.

Anonymous said...

Hi David

A legal system is a system of violent force. There is one, and only one way to maintain a legal system, that is with violent force. You need to inflict pain on rule-breakers.

The form of violence applied by the Amish is social isolation. I call this violence because, in Western culture, solitary confinement is considered a form of torture.

It is not sufficient for a single Amish person to shun someone who misbehaves. This is force, but it does not have critical mass. Instead, you need 500 people to simultaneously shun a rule-breaker. If every person you know stops interacting wth you, the pain is great.

The Amish have been successful because of how organized and self-conscious they are about applying force. Among the Jews, those factions that use organized shunning are successful at maintaining independence. Those factions that do not use it are not successful.

Joel Aaron Freeman