The Amish and Us

Why do we love the Amish so much?

I found myself pondering this question last week, when we enjoyed the pleasure of renting a home from an Amish family for our Lancaster County, Pennsylvania vacation. In addition to the great day trips which, despite the heat, were perfect for our kids (let's face it, whether the parents enjoy the activities is beside the point), I was inspired to do some research about the Amish faith and its culture. As I read articles, watched segments of two documentaries, and even struck up conversations with the homeowners, it hit me more than ever that, as Americans, we find tremendous joy in visiting Amish communities. According to a local website some ten million Americans visit Lancaster County each year, and Americans consume media portrayals of the Amish in great numbers.

This is especially striking considering that the Amish community, like any community, is far from perfect. Although there is significant variation in practice from community to community, as a general rule Amish education by design ends after eighth grade - intriguing, but hardly a model for emulation. The Amish excommunicate those who veer from orthodox church behavior, a practice many of us would consider highly objectionable and even dangerous to the mental health of those who are shunned. Like many religious groups, the Amish have produced extreme splinter groups, albeit nonviolent ones. We'd hardly aspire to a lifestyle that forbids, on religious grounds, the purchase of life insurance or the installation of lighting rods and even smoke detectors - yet that's precisely what many Amish do.

The time of rumspringa, during which teens are no longer held to many of the Amish restrictions, and when they are free to choose whether or not to become baptized and permanently join the Amish church, provides a striking illustration. As was powerfully depicted in the 2002 documentary Devil's Playground, for many Amish youth these are years of partying, drug experimentation, sexual promiscuity, and even teenage pregnancy.

So our tendency toward idealization seems misplaced. The Amish clearly are struggling in their attempt to transplant an 18th-century European lifestyle onto 21st-century American soil. And some of their practices are frankly repugnant to the modern mind.

Yet our reverence is undiminished. We find ourselves entranced by the fact that the Amish largely don't use electricity in their homes, wear zippers, vote, or drive cars. (On our trip we saw plenty of the expected horse and buggies, but perhaps more interesting were the horse-operated lawnmowers.) This all sounds exotic, but hardly something we speak about admirably in our everyday lives. What, then, is the source of our nostalgia?

In many ways, our idealization of the Amish lifestyle reminds me of the manner in which many Jews have created utopian memories of the Eastern European shtetl. We like to imagine the shtetl as a community brimming with budding Torah scholars, a place of perfect observance and piety. Of course this image contains a kernel of truth but, especially in the 20th-century, is largely naive. Jews were far from immune to the influences of their gentile neighbors, and many were poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, and hungry. Only the elite studied in yeshiva beyond a young age, and Eastern European haskalah and secular Zionism ravaged the religious commitment of the communities' youth. And yet, there is something healthy - if also dangerous - about the aspiration to return to a more pristine, faithful time in our history. Whether or not our historical reconstruction is accurate - which is a critically important issue - it remains valuable for us to ponder the possibility of living a life in greater harmony with many of those values of pure religious devotion.

Amish life similarly reminds us of something pure that we moderns have lost, a time and place in which everything somehow seemed more innocent. Where our lives are maddeningly complex and exhausting, Amish existence seems so much simpler and slower-paced. In a world steeped in materialism, the encounter with a faith community that seems happily modest is refreshing and almost purifying. The texture of Amish life - its simplicity, slower pace, rootedness in the humility associated with working the land, and above all its genuine religious devotion - reminds us of something pure within us and our society that is increasingly difficult for us to recover.

Is the Amish lifestyle really superior to modern life? I'm not convinced. But is it healthy to be reminded every once in a while of what society could have looked like, and what we might have lost along the way? I think the answer is yes. And in that respect, it makes perfect sense that we love to love the Amish.