Before the internet, these “wishful Amish” wrote to newspaper editors
March 29, 2016 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Can an Outsider Become Amish?
Up until that summer, ... Alex’s knowledge of the Amish was derived solely, like any ‘90s child, from the Weird Al Yankovic song “Amish Paradise,” and from the few times his family drove by them while on their way to drop him off at summer camp in Northern Pennsylvania when he was a kid. But he entered his senior year of high school ... with the Plain people in his mind. He bought Twenty Most Asked Questions About the Amish and Mennonites and “hauled it around with [him] everywhere;” he’d occasionally wear button-down shirts and slacks to school and when other students would ask him if he had some sort of presentation that day, he’d cheerfully respond, “Nope, I’m just dressing Mennonite!”
posted by frimble (11 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
That was lovely. And I think it was especially apt coming from someone who converted to Orthodox Judaism - for people who convert to a religion or move to a community that comes with a high barrier to entry, there can be a huge pull toward a sense of "belonging" that people who always belonged don't even realize they have (I keep thinking of the David Foster Wallace speech about "what the hell is water?").

The girl in the end anecdote could be rearranging her hairpin to get just the 'right' tightness, or she could be bored and it's all she has to fidget with. And from the outside, that not-knowing is so compelling.

I also found it interesting that he was a convert married to a convert - I know in Chassidism, while they accept converts and some groups go out of their way to bring nonreligious Jews back into their fold, they still won't marry them (or often their children), but instead steer newly-Chassidic people toward marriages among themselves (or to people the community considers otherwise less- or un-marriageable - the divorced, the mentally ill, the social edge cases). I think it takes 2-3 generations before there's full acceptance there, and even that's dependent on the role their secular families play in their lives. Is that true among the Amish as well? Or was it his choice - a matter of more gently easing into a community, by sharing your life with someone who's been through the same path as you and appreciates just how much you're giving up?

"Passing" is such a fraught subject that it's hard to really talk intellectually about it, because of all the ramifications of the word in racial and gender terms that require a much stronger level of sensitivity. But it's such a fascinating subject to me - it takes more than outward appearance to "belong". But changing your outward appearance - by choice - can still take you a long way toward changing who you are. And at the same time, if what you want most is a nebulous sense of belonging, how long can you bump against that ceiling before you ever feel you're through? Especially when the insiders who could do the most help by extending welcoming arms - because they truly 'belong' - feel the most pressure to keep that barrier to entry high? What's the line between passing and just trying to fit in?
posted by Mchelly at 9:35 AM on March 29, 2016 [12 favorites]

This was really interesting.

I feel like Jan's story was incomplete somehow. I mean it says she missed three chucrh services and was excommunicated for that. I can believe that it's standard practice to excommunicate people after missing 3 services, but I don't see how this can be the whole story: My understanding (which may well be flawed) of shunning (which is what I thought excommunication was) is that its purpose is to bring the person BACK to the community. The idea is essentially to punish someone to make them repent. So I would think that had she chosen to, she could have asked for forgiveness and started going to service again.

I assume there are complicated reasons that she didn't, but this doesn't really come seems like she joined, was going along, assimilating not perfect, but ok...there was this daughter-in-law-situation...and then poof she's just out. I would have been curious to know what the more-to-it is, but I guess other people's spiritual crises aren't really my business...but still, I'm curious.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:02 AM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's an American Experience with pretty extensive interviews with her and with her son who stayed in the church. I don't know if it's the general Amish series or the one specifically about shunning.
posted by gerstle at 10:23 AM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Neighbors! Lancaster PA from 10 years old till I ran screaming away for college. No one's really learned to drive until they learn how to pass a buggy in the rain on a curvy road.
posted by Mchelly at 10:39 AM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

But there was the rub: the other parents didn’t want to know what their teenage kids were up to. To confront the problem would be to acknowledge it, which was anathema to Amish sensibility.
My father's side was Mennonite - part of the less conservative Mennonite Brethren - and there, too, this was a thing. If something made you uncomfortable, you just didn't talk about it. Talking about something meant having to do something about it, which meant that you'd have to face the devastating prospect of shunning someone.

Even when they ended up Evangelical, they kept this. No-one ever said "gay", and my gay cousin was always welcome to visit. If he had brought a partner, though, then the topic might've been too difficult to avoid. So he didn't, and no-one said anything.

The culture was very much "don't ask, don't tell", and it sounds like the Amish are that way, too. How else do you preserve a formally theologically conservative, tightly bound group of people for hundreds of years when that group is made up of actual people, people who often don't fit the unrealistic theological mold? You've got to be able to avoid seeing a lot of things.
posted by clawsoon at 2:17 PM on March 29, 2016 [6 favorites]

sio42, you're missing the Brethren Relief Sale this week!

I've spent enough time around Mennonite (and, to a lesser extent, Amish) communities to ever see them as romantic utopias and retreats from a busy, complicated age (see "More Titillated Than Thou: How the Amish conquered the evangelical romance market" or "Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish"). They're people. The Amish sects vary, as do the Mennonite churches (previously: Gay and Mennonite) and it's all very complicated and hyper-local, and none of it exists as places where an outsider can easily slot him- or herself in to meet a need. I am not saying that people should not convert, but the starry-eyed idealization runs up against practical realities quickly, and that maybe native comfort is not a direct result of joining an organization; expecting it might be too much.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:24 PM on March 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I find it fascinating how certain people are so drawn to organizations---typically faith based---with strict rules. There's something about some people's psychology where having certain, pre-existing baselines of behavior and choice, especially when socially enforced, makes their lives better. It's almost completely alien to me, Atheist, Queer, authority-distrusting guy I am, but fascinating never the less. If it makes them happy, who am I to judge?
posted by SansPoint at 2:26 PM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think part of the allure, is actually the renouncing of things. Things that we suspect are just stressing us out rather than making us happier. Wouldn't it be nice to wear plain clothing, eschew complex beauty routines, leave the rat race, live a simpler, plainer life? Well maybe, until you spot the next item for your Amazon wish list.
posted by elizilla at 3:05 PM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

The American Experience episode featuring Jan is on youtube: The Amish: Shunned. I just started watching it and it is really really interesting so far.

Being shunned sounds like it would be an absolute nightmare.
posted by capnsue at 3:49 PM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

elizilla Yeah, but you can do all that without signing on to a religious faith that also imposes those rules by social and ostensibly divine fiat. What seems to drive people to go Amish or similar faiths isn't just the simplicity of the style of living, but a society makes simple living the default. I don't think you'll find many atheists who are attracted to the lifestyle of the Amish, but I do know there's plenty of people of varying degrees of faith (or lack thereof) who are really into the "Minimalist Lifestyle" which is similar to Plain Living, but lacks the religious trappings.
posted by SansPoint at 4:38 PM on March 29, 2016

Back in the nineties, I dated an Amish computer programmer who'd rumsprung out of the fold to have men and computers in his life, and I was sometimes so fixated on his past and the concept of somehow meeting his family that he often accused me of having buggy fever. It didn't work out, but I did end up with a sufficiently detailed understanding of the culture to give me one more rambling party conversation topic in which I was guaranteed to be an authority. In the end, he went on to be a superstar code jockey in San Francisco and I continued on my own path to simplicity through genteel poverty, but there are some great do/don't lessons to learn in what is otherwise a colorful folk culture no one outside the realm seems to understand.
posted by sonascope at 6:22 AM on March 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

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