Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish

Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish

by Tom Shachtman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865477421
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/29/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 842,940
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Tom Shachtman is an award-winning documentarian and the author of many books, including Skyscraper Dreams, Around the Block, and The Day America Crashed.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Going Away"

In the gathering dusk of a warm, humid summer Friday evening in northern Indiana, small groups of Amish-born girls between the ages of sixteen and nineteen walk along straight country lanes that border flat fields of high cornstalks and alfalfa, dotted here and there with neat, drab houses set back from the roads. One pair of girls walks westward, another pair eastward toward the destination; a threesome travels due south. Although not yet baptized members of the church, these young ladies all wear traditional "plain" Amish garb: solid-colored, long-sleeved dresses with aprons over them, long stockings and black shoes; white bonnets indicative of their status as unmarried cover their long hair, which is parted in the middle and pinned up in the back. A few carry small satchels. Though they are used to exercise and walking strongly, their demeanor is demure, so that they appear younger than non-Amish girls of the same age. The walkers pass homes where the women and children in the yards, taking in the last of the wash off clotheslines, wear no shoes, as though to better sense the warm air, grass, and dirt between their toes. Along these country lanes, while there are a few homes belonging to the "English," the non-Amish, most are owned by Old Order Amish families.

As the shards of sunset fade, electric lights are turned on in the English homes, but only the occasional gas lamp pierces the twilight of the Amish homesteads, illuminating buggies at rest in driveways, silhouetting horses in small pastures against high clouds, and here and there a dog and cat wandering about. No music can be heard coming from the Amish houses as the girls walk past, no faint whisper of broadcast news, no whir of air conditioners. All that disturbs the calm is the occasional animal bark, whinny, snort, or trill, and every few minutes the rapid clop-clop-clop of a horse-drawn vehicle going past; the girls' peals of laughter sound as innocent, as timeless, and as much a part of the natural surround as birds' calls.

From their several directions, the walkers converge on the home of another teenage Amish girl. There they go upstairs to the bedroom shared by the young females of the family, to huddle and giggle in anticipation of what is to happen later that night, after full dark. In a window visible from the lane, they position a lit gas lamp, and they leave open an adjacent side door to the house and stairway. These are signals to male Amish youth out "cruising" that there are young ladies inside who would welcome a visit, and who might agree to go out courting—a part of the rumspringa, or "running-around," tradition that has been passed down in Amishdom for many generations.

The setting for this evening's rumspringa activities, near the town of Shipshewana and the border between LaGrange and Elkhart counties in north-central Indiana, is similar to those in the other major areas of Old Order Amish population, Holmes and Wayne counties in Ohio, and Lancaster County in Pennsylvania; and similar rumspringa preparation scenes at young girls' homes are also enacted regularly in those areas.

Such activities usually go unseen by tourists, despite Shipshewana in Indiana, Berlin in Ohio, and Intercourse in Pennsylvania having become tourist destinations for millions of Americans each year. Shipshe, as the locals call their town, has only a few streets but these are lined with nearly a hundred attractive "specialty" shops that sell merchandise as likely to have been manufactured in China as crafted in Indiana.

East and west of the sales district, the area is rural and mostly Amish. The young ladies gathered in that upstairs bedroom, waiting for young men to come calling, work in Shipshe, Middlebury, Goshen, and other neighboring towns as waitresses, dishwashers, store clerks, seamstresses, bakers, and child-minders. All have been employed since graduating from Amish schools at age fourteen or fifteen, or leaving public schools after the eighth grade, and have been dutifully turning over most of their wages to their families to assist with household expenses. After their full days at work, and before leaving their homes this evening, the young ladies have also performed their chores: feeding the cows they milked earlier in the day, providing fresh bedding for the horses, assisting with housecleaning and laundry, with the preparation, serving, and clearing away of the evening meal, and caring for dozens of younger siblings.

In the upstairs bedroom, the girls play board games and speak of certain "hopelessly uncool" teenagers in their age cohort, girls and boys whom they have known all their lives but who are not going cruising and who seem content to spend their rumspringa years attending Sunday sings after church and volleyball games arranged by parents or church officials.

An hour later, when the girls have had their fill of board games, and when the parents of the house are presumed to be asleep, cars and half-trucks are heard pulling into the dirt lane. The battered, secondhand autos and pickups are parked well off the road, to be less visible to passersby in horse-drawn buggies. Out of the vehicles clamber males from sixteen to their early twenties, most of them Amish-born but at this moment trying hard not to appear Amish, wearing T-shirts and jeans, some with long hair or crew cuts instead of Amish bowl cuts. A few English friends accompany them. The young Amish-raised men have day jobs in carpentry shops, in factories that make recreational vehicles and mobile homes, in construction, or at the animal auction and flea market in town; none are farmers, though most still live at home, some on farms and the rest on "farmettes," five- to ten-acre homesteads that have a vegetable garden and areas of pasturage for the horses and the occasional family cow.

The young men shine a flashlight on the upstairs room where the lamp is lit, and at that countersignal one girl comes downstairs and greets the guys, who then creep up the stairs. After introductory banter in the crowded room, the girls are invited to go with the boys, and they all troop back out to the cars, the Amish girls still in their traditional garb. A few words pass between the daughter of the house and her parents—who have not, after all, been asleep—but while these include admonitions to be careful, they do not specify that she is to come home at a particular hour. If the parents are worried about this pack of teenagers "going away" on a Friday night—perhaps not to return until Sunday evening—they do not overtly display that emotion.

Once the young ladies hit the cars, and the cars have pulled away from the homestead, appearances and behaviors begin to change. While riding along, each Amish girl performs at least one of many actions that have been forbidden to her throughout her childhood: lights up a cigarette, grabs a beer, switches on the rock and rap music on the car radio or CD player, converses loudly and in a flirtatious manner with members of the opposite sex.

Coursing past a small schoolhouse where a few of the riders attended classes in the recent past and into the small, nearly deserted center of Shipshewana—whose restaurants stop serving at 8:00 p.m.—the convoy heads south, past the auction depot, stopping for a while on the outskirts of the business district at a gas station and convenience store. In addition to vehicle parking spaces, the station has a hitching post for horses and buggies. What these Amish teenagers seek on this visit is the convenience store's bathrooms, located next to a side door. In a bunch, the girls head into them, occupying for a while both the Gents' and the Ladies' as their male companions stand guard and graze the aisles, the older ones buying beer for them all, the younger ones springing for jerky, chips, and nuts. There are no sexually explicit magazines here at which the boys might glance, because such magazines are not carried in local stores, in deference to the wishes of the Amish and Mennonites in the area. A few young males shove quarters into a gambling machine, the Pot O Silver, which has the potential of returning them five or ten dollars for every half-dollar they put in. No one wins more than a quarter.

When the girls emerge from the bathrooms, only two of the eight still look Amish; the other six have been transformed. They wear jeans, T-shirts, and other mainstream American teenager outfits, some revealing their navels. Hair coverings have been removed, and a few have also let down their hair, uncut since childhood. "Ready to party," one lady avows. "Cruisin' and boozin'," another responds. The counter clerk, an older woman in Mennonite garb, seems unabashed by the changes in attire.

In the cars once again, cell phones—also forbidden equipment—emerge from hiding places, some from under the girls' clothing. Calls to compatriots in other vehicles, buggies as well as cars, yield the information that many dozens of Amish teenagers are now roaming the roads while trying to ascertain the location of this week's "hoedown." Soon it is identified: closer to Emma, a town three miles south of Shipshewana and not far from Westview High, the public school attended by many of the non-Amish revelers. The cars pass a young woman in a buggy heading in the direction of the party; she is smoking a cigarette and talking on her cell phone; the buggy's window flaps are open, to disperse the tobacco smoke and perhaps to facilitate the cell phone connection.

As they would in similar settings in Holmes or Lancaster County, the young Amish on the road to a party in northern Indiana pass familiar territory composed of quiet Amish homesteads and farms, suburban-looking English homes, a few factories and assembly buildings, and some small workshops. Here is a roadside stand operated by a Yoder family; there is a quilt boutique run by a Miller family; the small-engine repair shop of a member of the Esh family is nestled on a side road but has a sign visible from the main route; over yonder is a Weaver family furniture-making factory.

Around midnight, scores of Amish teenagers and twentysomethings converge on the back acres of a farm south of Shipshewana, several miles from the nearest town, a third of a mile from the farmhouse, and hidden from the nearest road by a forest of cornstalks. A used-car-lot inventory of cars, trucks, buggies, bicycles, and motorcycles is already parked here. Iced coolers of beer are put out; Amish teenagers reach for bottles with both hands. Young, mechanically adept men hook up portable CD players and boom-box speakers to car batteries. Shortly, rock and rap music blasts. Heads nod and bodies sway to the beat.

Many of the Amish kids know the words of the most current rock songs, even of black rap recordings that speak of mayhem in inner-city ghettos and anger against whites, songs they have learned from listening to battery-powered radios that they bought with the first money they earned, and that they have kept hidden at home. "When I'm angry at my bossy brothers," one young lady says, "I play rock on my radio; when I'm happy, I play country."

To have a focus for the party, the participants gather straw and brush for a bonfire. Its bright light and stark shadows crosshatch partygoers at the edges of the center, where various transactions are occurring. Most of the Amish youth are from northern Indiana, but some have come from across the state line in Michigan or from many hours away in Missouri and Ohio. There are about four hundred youth at this almost-deserted site, out of about two thousand adolescent Amish in northern Indiana. Some of the kids are what others refer to as "simmies," literally, foolish in the head, young, naïve, new to rumspringa—and, most of them, willing to work hard to lose the label quickly.

Beer is the liquid of choice, but there are also bottles of rum and vodka, used to spike soft drinks. Some of the younger kids do not know the potency of what they are drinking, or what it might do to them. Many will be sick before long. Most guzzle to mimic the others, while gossiping about who is not there or is not drinking. This night, one young woman will wonder why she always seems to drink too much.

In one corner of the party, joints of marijuana are passed around, as are pipes of crank (crystal methamphetamine). Lines of cocaine are exchanged for money. A handful of the partygoers are seriously addicted, while others are trying drugs for the first time. Crank is incredibly and instantly addictive, and it is relatively simple and cheap to make; the only ingredient used that is not available from a local hardware store, anhydrous ammonia, is a gaseous fertilizer easily stolen from tanks on farms. Those few partygoers interested in doing hard drugs gather in a different location than the majority, who prefer drinking beer or smoking pot.

As the party gets into full swing, and beer and pot are making the participants feel no pain, a few Amish girls huddle and make plans to jointly rent an apartment in a nearby town when they turn eighteen, as some older girls have already done. Others shout in Pennsylvania Dutch and in English about how much it will cost to travel to and attend an Indianapolis rock concert, and the possibilities of having a navel pierced or hair cut buzz short. One bunch of teens dances to music videos shown on a laptop computer; a small group of guys, near a barn, distributes condoms.

As such parties wear on, the Amish youth become even less distinguishable from their English peers, shedding their demureness, mimicking the in-your-face postures of the mainstream teen culture, with its arrogance, defiance, raucousness, inner-city-gang hand motions and exaggerated walking stances.

"The English girls prefer us Amish guys because we're stronger and better built and we party harder," insisted one young Amish man at a similar party. Another countered that it is because the Amish guys have more money in their pockets—the result of not having to spend much on food and shelter, since most of them are living at home. The English guys are also partial to the Amish young ladies, this young man added, because Amish girls are "more willing than English girls to get drunk." Of temptation-filled parties like this, one Amish young woman will later comment, "God talks to me in one ear, Satan in the other. Part of me wants to be Amish like my parents, but the other part wants the jeans, the haircut, to do what I want to do."

Couples form and head off into the darkness. Some petting goes further than exploration, and this night one of the girls who earlier walked that country lane loses her virginity. Another partygoer becomes pregnant; several weeks from now, when she realizes it, she will simply advance her wedding date so that her child, as with about 12 percent of first births among the Amish, will be born before her marriage is nine months old. This evening, as well, a few female partygoers will bring boys home, and, with their parents' cognizance, spend the night in "bed courtship," on the girls' beds but "bundled" separately.

During parties like this, as the hours wear on, the boys frequently damage property. There are fistfights; one partygoer recalled a particularly bad incident in which a lad in a fit of bloody rage ripped the earring stud from another young man's ear.

At first light, the farm's owners and their children move about the area, to herd in and milk the cows. One farmer's daughter, spotting a partygoer about to throw up, smilingly hands her an empty pail.

An hour later, the sun is fully up, but most of the exhausted partygoers in various sheltered locations around the back acres are still asleep. Undisturbed, they will wake again near noon. Some have made plans to go to a mall, twenty miles away, to shop and see a movie before continuing the party tomorrow evening in another semideserted location.

Near Shipshe, Berlin, and Intercourse, those Amish youngsters walking on the wild side of rumspringa during this weekend will party on until, late on Sunday, they return home to sober up and ready themselves for Monday and the workweek. Most have no plans to tell their parents, upon returning to the family hearth, precisely where they have been for the previous forty-eight hours, or with whom they spent their "going away" time. While the parents may well ask such questions, the children feel little obligation to answer them.

Excerpted from Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman. Copyright © 2006 by Tom Shachtman and Stick Figure Productions. Published in May 2007 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

A Note to the Reader     xi
"Going Away"     3
"A Glory Old Time"     34
Straightforward Conversations"     60
Education: "Prepare for Usefulness"     91
Faith and Doctrine: "Stand Fast and Believe the Word as Written"     116
Shunning: To Keep the Church "Pure"     148
Farming: "The Ideal Occupation"     173
"Working Away"     189
"Women's Lib Would Have a Field Day Among the Amish"     211
Seeking Solutions     232
"Coming Home"-An Essay     251
Note     273
Selected Bibliography     281
Acknowledgments     285

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Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book gives you a glimpse into the Amish world, one which we 'English' are not able to see from the street or tours in Amish country. The book details the trials and stuggles that teenage Amish go through in choosing to join the church and the community or to walk away and be a part of a world they know little about. Wonderful and enjoyable to read.
NewsieQ on LibraryThing 18 days ago
Read for NF readers' group. Interesting book, interesting discussion about a topic non-Amish would have no way of knowing about.
tamora on LibraryThing 18 days ago
This is a fascinating look at what it is like to grow up Amish. The author interviewed teenagers and told their stories from their perspective.
vesuvian on LibraryThing 18 days ago
Apparently there's a documentary floating around on which this book is based. Is it good to be "of the world"? Are teenagers ready to make lifelong commitments to their families armed with an eighth-grade education, strong work ethic, and a trade as American society slowly disintegrates? Which is the smarter choice: abandon self for safety or go into the world, risking the past for an uncertain future?Shachtman raises these questions as he looks at three Amish communities in the United States. His conclusion: the self-reliant community of believers is good, but outside pressure is forcing change. He would like them to have a voice in managing change before change manages them.I plan to use this for a book group in my community when it's my turn to select a title (I'm a librarian).
arsmith on LibraryThing 18 days ago this is the kind of nonfiction that i love. not a very quick read, but the subject matter is interesting. reads like a documentary. growing up in indiana, i have always been fascinated with the amish. it's their ability to lead such peaceful lives and to be totally content with what they have that intrigues me. even as an atheist, i think there is a lot we can learn from them.
naheim on LibraryThing 18 days ago
Rumspringa is an interesting look a the life and religion of the Amish, especially their adolescents and young-adults. The beginning is a bit slow and the writing is not great, but the information is good. The focus of the book is on the period in each Amish youngster's life when they are permitted to live a mainstream lifestyle while deciding if they want to be baptized an officially become a member of the Amish community. The practice of rumspringa is fascinating and life of the Amish is certainly interesting, even if it's incomprehensible.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing 18 days ago
Rumspringa, or "running around," is an Amish teenage tradition. After finishing school at age 14, they are allowed to spend as much time as they need living outside the order, until they are ready to either be Amish, and join the church as an adult, or leave the church (and often their family) behind. Tom Shachtman interviewed hundreds of Amish teenagers and parents, to learn more about rumspringa, and the factors that influence joining or separating from the church. In the first few chapters, he describes the experiences of several teenagers, which generally involves experimenting with alcohol and drugs, using cars, and working in restaurants and factories. He then analyzes various aspects of adult Amish life, that cause people to return to the order (or choose not to). 80-90% of teens return after their rumspringa, often because of marriage. They also value the strong community support, and usually can find work on the family farm or in an Amish-run business. The Amish lifestyle also is far less expensive than life "on the outside." It seemed to me that the central limiting factor of life outside the order is lack of education, which greatly limits employment opportunities.I had looked forward to reading this book, because I live near Amish communities in Pennsylvania. It does provide interesting insight to a culture that I can observe only from a distance. Ultimately, however, it read like a series of loosely connected chapters, lacking a central thesis or message. Shachtman briefly draws on psychological theory to discuss the emotional development of Amish teens, but stops short of in-depth analysis. At the end of the book, having explored the broader societal forces acting on modern Amish life, Shachtman tries to envision the Amish 50 years from now. Unfortunately, he did not build up sufficient evidence for his points, which leaves his conclusion feeling slightly disconnected.This is still an interesting book, and worth reading if you are interested in Amish culture. It just could have been considerably better.
verbafacio on LibraryThing 18 days ago
A surprising look at Amish coming of age. When Amish youths reach age 16, they are allowed to explore the wider world, including drinking, drugs, and sex. Shachtman does a great job of offering balanced information and explaining the complicated philosophies that underpin Amish society. This book definitely makes you reconsider the way Western society handles adolescence.
LynnB on LibraryThing 18 days ago
I had never heard of "Rumspringa" -- the period of adolescence where Amish youth are given an opportunity to experience life outside of Amish rules. The theory is that, following this period of experimentation, the youth will return to the church and undergo baptism. And, it's a theory that works since at least 80% of youth do return. As the Amish believe, there is no stronger bond than one freely chosen.The author has done an excellent job of providing a balanced view of Amish religion and culture and provided an interesting study laced with individual stories of youth going through the rumspringa period. It made me think about how we bring up teenagers in mainstream North American society -- giving them lots of freedom as children then trying to impose more rules and responsibilities as they enter high school. Do we have it backwards? Are we setting a strong enough foundation of values in early childhood?Anyone interested in Amish culture or in raising teenagers will find lots to think about in this book.
lgray724 on LibraryThing 18 days ago
Fascinating look at a fascinating culture.
drinkingtea on LibraryThing 18 days ago
Probably not the most scholarly book in the world, but the cover amused the heck out of me for some reason. Rumspringa is a serious topic, though. The author follows a few people through their rumspringa period and gives the reasons why most of them return. I wonder as many would return if there were an alternative other than 'sink on the outside,' but I suspect most of them still would.
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