Posted by: Rachel | January 3, 2013

Amish or Not?

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock lately I gonna tell you the latest news: ‘Amish’ reality shows have been sweeping the nation. They have brought with them lots of controversy, one issue being the ‘Amishness’ of the characters. People are all sorts of outraged that these dudes and dudesses are daring to say they are Amish while involved in such supposed heathenish ventures.

So are they Amish? Sam Stoltzfus said they aren’t in a letter to the Lancaster New Era.

I tend to think that if you are regularly attending the Amish church and abide by the majority of their dictates, laws, ordinances, whatever, then you are Amish. If you haven’t been to Amish church services in a year and haven’t put on Amish clothes in the same amount of time, then no, you are not Amish.

But then what about the youth who are still attending church occasionally, maybe a member, maybe not, but they carry iPhones and text all their Amish friends with crazy text language. They wear jeans and Abercrombie tees on the weekend and are on Facebook and talk about the alcohol that will be consumed at the party this weekend. Are they still Amish? This is starting to get tricky. On one hand they still make an effort by wearing the traditional garb most of the time, but pics of themselves in bikinis on the beach? umm…. that’s not so ‘Amish.’

What about the Amish adults who are married with children and by all appearances lead a normal Amish life but vote and attend political rallys? They might gather at a non-Amish friend’s house to watch the Super Bowl or a movie. Are they Amish?

What about those who grew up Amish, decided the faith wasn’t for them, but want to appear on a crazy reality show as an Amish person?

At what point do we draw the line? And who is making the line? Does Sam Stoltzfus get to decide? Or the Amish Bishops? Or the ‘English’? Does the person get to personally decide for themselves?

My brothers and I grew up Amish but attended public high school. While we attended high school we did not dress Amish, nor did we attend the Amish church very much. (I had to attend sporadically until I was 16) Amish people did not consider us Amish. In their eyes we were now ‘Englishers.’ But if you were to talk to any of our classmates they said we were Amish. To them our main defining characteristic was being Amish. So who’s line do we use in that situation? The ‘English’ didn’t really see us as one of theirs and yet neither did the Amish. We had nowhere to belong. That’s being a bit dramatic, but it really was no picnic. (I’m quite happy to have those years behind me. Someone once said to me, “oh, you have the best of both worlds.” I always felt it was more like the worst of both worlds.)

If being ‘Amish’ was solely about the religion then we could say those that are not practicing it are no longer Amish. But Amishness is about so much more, it’s a culture, perhaps even an ethnicity. Dictionary.com defines culture as: the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. I no longer practice religion in the Amish way but I still have or practice many of the behaviors that are characteristic of being Amish. For example, I can still speak the language.

Having grown up Amish I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that those on the show are definitely from the Amish culture. Their command of the PA Dutch language isn’t the best anymore (neither is mine) but some of the dialogue was so typical Amish that I really laughed out loud. For me the best line was Episode two, when Alvin says ‘you can hardly trust him the way it is’ in PA Dutch. I smile every time I think of it. It was so typically Amish in it’s dismissive view of a young ambitious boy getting too big for his britches.

There are a lot of things, both good and bad, to be said about the Amish reality shows. But to say that the actors are not Amish requires some qualifiers. You can say they no longer practice the faith, or that they are not members of the Amish church, but to dismiss them as not Amish is very broad and denies them their heritage. It’s a unique heritage and frankly it requires a bit of suffering at times. Leaving is hard, and it’s difficult sometimes to find a way to honor or hold on to the culture while creating a life outside of it. I’m not sure if those on the show are honoring their heritage but let’s not deny where they came from.

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