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.