Quick poll: how many of you are fascinated by the Amish? I used to think it was my Orthodoxy and my identification/feeling of “otherness” that drew me to the Amish, but then realized that many of my fellow MOTs, Orthodox and otherwise, feel the same way.
I know how I feel when I read a book or see a documentary about my culture through the eyes of others (unfortunately, there is no documentary about the Orthodox, made by the Orthodox). Icky, that’s how. They never really get it right. So I’m wise enough to be skeptical when I see or read such stuff about other cultures. I know they’re not hitting the nail quite on the head.
A couple of months ago, my husband and I were in Amish country checking out a bed-and-breakfast for a possible retreat weekend with our organization, and in the room was a book called “Growing Up Amish” by Ira Wagler. I flipped it over and saw that it was a memoir written by a man who tried, multiple times, to remain in the Amish faith and ultimately left. I wanted to plop right down in the rocking chair and read it, but couldn’t, so I made a mental note to READ THAT BOOK.
Why? I could tell, just from skimming that:
It was a first-person memoir.
It was about someone who, while he ultimately left the fold, did so without extreme anger or bitterness.
It was a beautiful portrait of the faith without a “tell-all” expose, tabloid feel.
And at the same time, it was honest about the struggles inherent in the culture.
So when a friend sent me a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble as a gift (props for people who know just what to get!) I straight up and ordered the book.
And finished it in two days (and was an ineffectual mother during said two days).
I can’t possibly convey all that I loved about this sad and beautiful story, but I will say this. The whole time I was reading the book, I was comparing Amish life with Orthodoxy, and actually more, Hasidic life, which has more in common with Amish life. There similarities and so many stark differences. I’m not qualified to comment on Hasidic life since I’ve never lived it, but I do know more about it than your average Jew, so I’ll go out on a limb.
(A word about the writing. It’s sparse, even plain, like the Amish life it describes. But that’s good, because the writing itself gets out of the way and is a transparent window. The world of the Amish comes straight through the writer and is almost untainted by his own experience. That in itself is a thing of beauty.)
The similarities are obvious, at least the external ones.
Distinctive dress for both men and women.
Restrictions in terms of modernity and mixing with outsiders.
A special, insider language.
Regular religious services.
Clear roles for men and women.
Tight-knit, supportive communities.
Variations in rules and customs depending on individual community – where some are considered too strict and some are considered too lax.
Stigma toward those families where a child has “left.”
Clear expectations and protocol regarding dating and marriage.
But there are some pretty major differences.
One of the main ones is that it didn’t seem from the book that the religion had too many daily responsibilities. Meaning, it certainly impacted daily life from the way you dressed to the way you transported yourself and to your profession of choice (farming). But in religious Jewish life, you have religious things you do, on your own and not just communally, every day from the moment you open your eyes in the morning, to your meals that you eat, to what you eat, to prayer services (for men) three times a day.
It seemed from the book, and again, it could be the book just didn’t express it fully, that you had your prayers in the morning after breakfast, and then you were busy with your chores all day. Sunday was church to be sure, and there was the weekly “singing” which was religious in nature. I say a prayer the moment I wake up and every time I come out of the bathroom. I constantly choose kosher food. I monitor my speech to make sure it’s not disallowed for being mean or untruthful. I say “please God” and “God willing” in my daily conversation. I give charity every time I get paid for something. I pray myself whenever I can – and it was actually Ira discovering this personal, spontaneous form of prayer that ultimately saved his relationship with God. I’m not saying this is better or harder or anything. It’s just a stark difference that I noticed.
Also, there was a huge difference in holidays. The book didn’t mention Christmas or Easter or any religious holiday, even once. I don’t know why. But Judaism is pretty much always either recovering from a holiday or preparing for one. There are the famous ones like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, and also the lesser-known ones like Shemini Atzeret, Shavuot, Tu B’shvat, Rosh Chodesh, and what-have-you. There’s always a holiday, and it’s a huge part of our lives.
Schooling was another big difference. In Orthodox Judaism, and especially Hasidic Judaism, school is completely bound up with religious life. It’s daily, it’s long (dual curriculum) and it continues for a long time. In Amish culture, school seemed to be just school and not tied to the religious system or community. It didn’t seem as though the Amish attend school after eighth grade either, as they are needed for farming, but I could be wrong. In Orthodoxy, school is so inextricable from the religious system that if a child has a bad experience at school, it almost always creates a conflict in that child’s religious identity. And religious Jews are expected to always continue their religious studies, no matter how old they get – boys and girls. Whether it’s in the form of post-high school Israel programs, or less formal lectures available in one’s community, or lectures available online or over the phone, ongoing learning for all is a very prioritized value. Outside of church, I didn’t pick up on any of that in the book.
One very difficult part of the book to read about was the stoicism that the author describes in his community. When he experiences tragedy (no spoilers) and his parents experience the pain of their children leaving the fold, expressing one’s feelings is taboo. While all families operate differently in any culture or religious system, it was indicated by the author that this stoicism was definitely inherent in Amish life.
Orthodox Judaism, and even more so Hasidic Judaism, does have some degree of communal protectiveness where it’s taboo to openly admit your problems and failures, but I was struck by the contrast between Amish living and Jewish living in terms of dealing with tragedy. In Judaism, you have the broadest gamut of emotions built into the calendar and even into the prayers. There’s Orthodox funerals, where everyone is openly crying. There are Orthodox weddings where bride and groom are very likely sobbing in prayer under the chuppah. There’s the wildly ecstatic Simchat Torah celebrations and intoxicatedly joyous Purim parties. There’s Tisha B’av, where we cry for Jerusalem and for personal tragedies. There’s Yom Kippur, where we cry in repentance for our misdeeds. People get choked up when they speak at bnei mitzvah and weddings. We get together for impassioned and tearful prayers for Israel. Wow, it’s just so different.
On a sort-of tangent, one of the most depressing parts of the book was where Ira expressed his need to process his depression and about how therapy was absolutely off-limits. I’m pretty sure it was like this in Orthodoxy till recently (but that’s true of the general world). The stigma is receding in terms of accessing help, but probably not in terms of admitting that one needs help. And we still have a long way to go because one of the features of Judaism is perfectionism. Not just in the religious community but across the board – although religious and secular Jews perfectionize about different things. Secular Jews perfectionize more about academics and religious Jews more about who they marry, but either way it’s a Jewish trait, so being imperfect and experiencing depression and seeking therapy are still far more taboo than they need to be.
Mistrust of the “outside” world is a theme that seems to be shared by both Amish folks and religious Jews, but there are important differences. The Amish in the book shunned the outside world and modern conveniences because it is their policy to be plain and simple. Anything fancy is by definition against their philosophy. Religious Jews and especially Hasidim believe that modern conveniences are awesome as long as they don’t compromise Jewish values (and you can afford them). Dishwashers? Great! Cars? Fabulous! But as soon as technology introduces concepts that are foreign to Judaism, that’s where we get wary – much warier than the secular community. (It is true that materialism in and of itself is a problematic issue in Judaism, but we don’t carry it anywhere near as far as the Amish.)
Smartphones are a perfect example. Smartphones afford unlimited access to the internet, with all the good, bad and ugly that that includes. We are very mindful about introducing that kind of technology into our homes and into the hands, particularly, of our impressionable kids. While smartphones have definitely made themselves comfy in many an Orthodox home (including mine), we are very conscious about its pernicious influence whether in religious philosophy, language, immodest images and themes, and music that is antithetical to spirituality.
So for us, it’s not modernity in and of itself that’s problematic, but rather where that modernity will take us in terms of Jewish observance, belief, and values.
In some ways I envied the Amish while reading the book. Their plain and simple life without cars and technology, while gritty, seems far less complicated than mine, with my carpools and constantly pinging phone. But the grass is always greener elsewhere. Would I really rather spend my time churning butter? Not so much.
More to discuss, for sure, like the marriage system, authoritarian parents, and kids who leave. Read the book, and weigh in below. I’d love to hear.
Thanks for the review! Yes, I have always shared your fascination with the Amish, and I now look forward to reading this book.
Wow, this is so interesting! And I really enjoyed the way you compared and contrasted. I'm putting this book on my list.
I'm pretty sure I got this book from the library and read it a few years ago. It was so sad that his family (his father in particular, I think?) had to send him away when he wanted to stop keeping his community's restrictions. There's a lot more tolerance for nonobservant children in non-chassidic Orthodox Judaism.
I wonder if we would have heard more about holidays, emotion and even prayer if a similar book were written from a woman's perspective. Maybe, maybe not.
Oh, that's an interesting insight. By contrast, it seems many of the ex-Orthodox memoirs are written by women. I wonder if how the Amish felt about this book parallels how I feel about those (horrified).
I also was struck by how the kids sort of understood that leaving the faith meant literally picking up and moving out. I don't know if it was so much that his father made him, or that it wasn't possible practically or emotionally to live there and not be Amish. Hasidim do tend to move out when they decide to no longer be hasidic, but that seems to be their choice. Or maybe the stigma is too great.
I understand what you mean about feeling horrified at ex-Ortho memoirs, because I remember (in my frum days) quickly skipping past Shalom Auslander's stories in the New Yorker. And even though I've lost my faith, I have not read any of the scandalous ex-Ortho memoirs that have come out recently. Just not interested. But I'm trying to understand (from my own perspective) what is really horrifying about these books? I don't believe these ex-Orthos suthors are doing it to smear the community, even though it might come out that way. They're probably all in a lot of pain, and they probably do perceive that their pain is mostly caused by experiences they had growing up in the Ortho world. They've mostly lost any familial support system they may have had, whether through their own choice or the choices of their families. So is it horrifying that they're airing dirty laundry in public? Horrifying that they can't be totally objective about the community? A lot of books are revealing and non-objective, but that doesn't make them horrifying. I think it's more a knee-jerk response like I had (back in the day) with Shalom Auslander, that I didn't want to read anything bad about Orthodoxy, certainly not in a secular publication. And yes, I think the Amish would feel the same way.
Oh, and I do realize it's entirely possible that the ex-Ortho authors have embellished some details, possibly at their editors' urging, to make their upbringings seem more scandalous than they actually are in order to sell more books. I guess that's the part that's possibly horrifying.
Interesting. I just assumed Ruchi was horrified by the horrible experiences these people had in Orthodox society. Otherwise I would have expected her to say it's sad, not horrifying. But only Ruchi knows the truth …
Tesyaa, may I just say, I'd love it if Ruchi did an interview with you! From what I gleaned from your various comments you seem to be navigating losing faith and yet remaining within on O community with intelligence and grace – and without the bitterness that seems typical to those ex-Ortho testimonies you mentioned.
Thanks for the compliment.
Interesting. And here I thought Ruchi meant she was horrified by the horrible experiences that the ex-Orthodox people went through in their Orthodox communities. Otherwise their leaving would be just sad.
I am horrified by the smearing of atypical experiences that are awful, and now will be possibly perceived as mainstream Orthodoxy (although I don't think readers really consider these experiences typical). Actually, that horror was partly what fueled this blog – to tell a different, "normal" story, that is not whitewashed.
tesyaa, would you allow me to interview you here?
Hmm, I don't think an interview with me is in the spirit of your blog. But it's a shame we didn't get to meet up in person, that would have been fun!
I live among the Amish in rural Lancaster County, PA and I have to say that it is one thing to read about them and something entirely different to live around them. If my windows are open on Sunday morning, I hear a constant stream of horses and buggies traveling down the road to the nearby Amish church. I stop at their roadside fruit and veggie stands. I have even consulted with them on gardening (I still have a lot to learn on that count). They tend to be personable and very polite, but don't get in the way at yard sales (you'll get run over). There is a surprising amount of variation of "observance" from one community to another, and even within the same community. In the southern part of the county, the men start growing beards (no mustaches) when they get married, and they tend to wear them long. In our part of the county, they all tend to be clean shaven. In some areas, the Amish fight the local government about putting anything on their buggies to make them more visible on the road, but in our area, many even have battery powered hazard lights. We even have one local "renegade" young man who has decked out his buggy with ground effects neon and a boom box. I have also seen Amish riding in a buggy and talking on a cell phone. All this is to say that their culture is extremely complex and would be difficult to grasp even in a book length work.
Thanks for this input – and I've tried to be sensitive to that awareness – just as I'd like outsiders to Orthodoxy to be.
I confirm that fascination with the Amish goes beyond the O community!
You write that at O weddings the bride and the groom "are very likely sobbing in prayer under the chuppah". Why? Just because of emotions running high, or because the prayers said under the chuppah have a sad element to them?
I cried through my own wedding, civil, no chuppah! It is intense to get married!
I meant to add that I am somewhat fascinated by the Amish as well. I wonder how they view themselves compared to other Christian denominations, e.g. it seems unlikely that they believe that they are practicing Christianity the way it was meant to be practiced (since Christ wasn't a farmer and so on). This would seem to be a difference between Amish and Os, where Os believe that other branches of Judaism are not practicing the way they were meant to.
I didn't cry at my wedding at all, I think I was laughing all the time – I just found it joyous.
The part that made me ask the question was that Ruchi wrote they were "sobbing in prayer". Also, though I've seen a few brides cry, I've never seen a groom cry, though some were very solemn. But maybe it's a cultural norm thing, and in the O world it's more acceptable for men to be crying in public?
Actually I think they DO consider that they are the only ones practicing Christianity the correct way. They are literalists, and they think that others went astray from what Jesus taught – hence the need to remove themselves from the world and its wicked ways.
I was trying to find more info on their set of beliefs, but it seems hard, since they obviously aren't using Internet…
SBW, don't the Amish have carpenters?
I know even less about Amish than I do about Os, so definitely I'm just using my imagination here. They are, I believe, all handy types (the men). I guess I was wondering–and there is, as W says, probably no "Amish blog" out there to check this out–how much their old-fashioned lifestyle they deem to come DIRECTLY from the command of God. They reject modernity but don't dress like 1st-century people, more 19th century (and I'm also no fashion historian). Did God command that they be farmers, in their view? Anyway I guess I would need to read the books here, which I would love to do.
Here's a totally different question for Ruchi that is really personal in the financial vein, doesn't need to be answered of course if she doesn't want: You've mentioned here and before that when you want to buy a book you need to wait for a gift opportunity or save up the money. I imagine having 7 kids makes for a VERY tight budget even for middle-class Os. If I very much want a book, I just go buy it (ok, not a 7-volume hardback set, but 'normal' books), especially if it just came out and it's not in the library yet. Do you have a very rigid budget because of all your large-family and Jewish obligations? How does budgeting work in your complicated life?
This the type of prayer I'm talking about:
Although the groom isn't "sobbing" here, you can see how this heartfelt meditative state could easily go there. For me it did.
In answer to the financial piece, SBW, most Orthodox families with 4 or more kids are budgeting carefully due to, mostly, day school tuition. Kosher food is expensive but not more than organic, I'd wager.
What a beautiful video! So does the bride already wear a wig so that when the magic moment comes she is covered? And what is that guy in the front row doing on the phone toward the end!! Where is the bride's father? The groom looks mighty young indeed.
It depends on custom. Brides sometimes wear a wig to the chuppah so it's all set – others wear one the next day. This couple is Chassidish so there the custom is to wear a wig for the whole wedding. Now I'm not sure which guy you mean and what he's doing – what minute is that? The two fathers walked down the groom, and they are standing behind him (the guys holding the candles all the way at the end). The groom is probàbly between 18 and 20, considering as it's a Chassidic wedding.
3:14, but maybe it's a camera.
In the same genre, also well-written but more lighthearted: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.
I also picked this up at my local library; I'm a library addict.
Oh, I'd love to hear more about that.
I grew up in Cleveland, where it's easy to visit the Amish (if you take horseback riding lessons east of the city, for example or if you go out to the country to get corn stalks for your sukkah). You can also see Amish folks in the city at time, for medical care (which they do allow) or being driven in by a non-Amish contractor for construction work. There are also Mennonite who keep many of the same customs with fewer restrictions on technology.
All in all, I think there are important similarities in any closed community — the warmth, communal solidarity, and feeling of living "right" can be great for one person and have a steep price for another. Family problems that are devastating in any culture (abuse, addiction) are even more difficult in places where there seems to be "no way out". Closed communities are great for those who prefer security, clarity, and consistency and hard on those who prefer personal freedom, unclear questions, and new things. We all need both of those, but the desired balance is different for each person.
I find it hard to support shunning, whether by Satmar or the Amish or Jehovah's Witnesses. To force everyone in your community into line by threatening to take away their contact with the people they love most? Do such people genuinely believe in G-d? I'm not sure I believe in the same god as those who are willing to threaten people into compliance and false belief. The G-d I believe in wants a true service of the heart, a true desire for right action, a true connection with each soul. If you need to threaten people in this way to get them to behave "correctly" then something seems wrong to me.
Can't wait to read the book! And I do wish that all of those who have left their faith in every community could somehow, return home, at least to visit. We're all here, at this time, together and alive, right now. To lose a child or a parent or a sibling is to lose a part of yourself. This happens, in life, but to choose it seems very cruel on all sides.
Wait, you grew up in Cleveland??? Hmm… 🙂
I totally agree with you about shunning, and so do most Orthodox rabbis. The book does describe how the author was welcomed back each time, even after excommunication.
I agree that most Orthodox rabbis don't promote shunning, but they don't promote acceptance of the "wayward" person's life choices, either. (Acceptance of the person as welcome even at the Shabbos table, yes; acceptance and peace that the person has chosen another way of life, no).
Tesyaa, who would expect a rabbi to inwardly be at peace with another's choices that are antithetical to his belief system? Isn't it enough to treat the person with warmth and love despite that inward unrest?
It's probably a drier read than this Amish memoir, but I really wish you would do a review/discussion of Nirenberg's "Anti-Judaism", it's fascinating and I wonder what Os would think of it.
There does seem to be a fascination with Amish people and their lifestyle yet I believe it is a "short-lived" interest. IOWs the hows, what, where and why is interesting — particularly their dress code and disdain for modern day life.
I harbor an interest in those who can sincerely embrace their religious beliefs, grow continuously in spiritual attainment and live in this wonderful, complex, fast-moving, doggie dog, complicated WORLD. Just to shun MODERN society seems like an easy cop-out. The true challenge and daily struggle to keep your head above the shmutz, mud and hunger for power & honor is where the excitement is!!!