6 April

Amish Lessons And Misconceptions: What I’m Learning

by Jon Katz

I’m learning a lot from my Amish neighbors and friends, and I want to share what I am learning as I learn. I see there are many myths about the Amish; I am sorting through the truth.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about these people.

-They are not reclusive and secretive. They are, in fact, the friendliest and most open neighbors I’ve ever had.

Certainly, they are different, but they welcome visitors and are happy, even eager to explain their faith and answer questions.

I do not visit them on Sundays, their day of prayer, nor do I visit them during most daylight hours, when they are working hard. It would be easy to take advantage of their hospitality.

-There are different kinds of Amish, not just one:

Old Amish, New Amish, Higher-Order Amish, Lower Order Amish, several strains of German origin.

Some are deeply conservative, some more liberal. Some even use their old German languages. Most don’t.

Some reject any modern or electronic device; some use cell phones and phones, some even have tractors and trucks. My neighbors are on the conservative side – no electric or gas-powered machines – but they are very interested in the modern world.

This is a diverse culture with different strains and traditions.

-Several people have messaged me, suggesting it is invasive and dangerous for me to write about them. One woman even said it was creepy.

Those people are not familiar with the Amish. Their existence depends in part on selling food and services and woodwork and sheds and pies and necklaces and cookies and bracelets to the outside world. They accept outside work and are known for their diligence and modest charges.

They welcome any honest promotion from neighbors and friends.

They want to be known and are eager to be known, as there is no way to supplement their incomes if people can’t find their food and vegetable stands and hire them.

They see everything I write about them and what they make and sell. I hope to be helpful to them in that way.

I should note that the Amish work hard to earn money, but they are a self-sustaining community. They take care of their sick up to a point, care for their elderly, “insure” each other in the sense that if disaster strikes, they will all rush in to help one another.

As I have experienced it, the Amish faith is centered around faith, family, forgiveness, simplicity, hard work, and honesty. They do not proselytize or accept outsiders or converts into their faith. There is no hidden agenda.

Their commitment to forgiveness is a legend, even when they suffer a robbery, murder, or kidnapping. They always forgive, as they believe Jesus Christ forgave. They take to heart his injunctions to be merciful and charitable.

-People suggest that Amish women are exploited because they have many children – some have 13 and more. I’ve asked several mothers about it, and they see themselves as carrying out a seminal mission for their faith and their families.

Their children carry and transmit their deep religious faiths, and they help make farming and simplicity possible. They also teach their children at home, and when possible, in Amish schools.

They tell me there is no harder or more important work than loving and caring for children.

These women believe they are central to their faith’s growth and survival and are doing important, even essential work. They tell me they love their lives.

Many American women would find their lives exhausting, even exploitive. They live a life and lifestyle of their choice and seem content and engaged to me. They don’t judge other people, and they don’t judge me.  I don’t care to judge them.

-Amish are plain and simple. It is true, the Amish believe in simple and plain lives. But it is also true that living a plain and simple life in America is not simple, but very complex – there are issues relating to schools, zoning, health care, construction, funerals, labor, and a hundred other kinds of regulations that Amish families have to contend with, often in court.

“It’s not simple and plain to lead a simple life here, is it?” I asked my friend Mosie. He smiled and shook his head. “No,” he said, “it isn’t.

-Amish children. I’ve met and spoken with more than a dozen Amish children. I am impressed.

They speak to me, which most children don’t, they look me in the eye, which few children do, they ask and remember my name, which “English” children rarely do; they are well-spoken, courteous. They are voracious and enthusiastic workers and are all clean and appear healthy.

Outside, they are always working, building and repairing carriages, cutting and hauling firewood, washing clothes,  playing with one another, cleaning, and reading.

Inside, the girls bake and clean, sew, and wash. The houses are spotless, everyone’s clothes are clean. It is interesting to meet and talk to children who do not spend their lives on Ipads, cellphones, Instragam, or computers. They are startlingly different.

-The animal rights people say the Amish are cruel to animals. I have not found this to be true in any sense of the term.

Many of these groups insist the Amish are cruel to horses and make money selling puppies through puppy mills. The animal rights movement believes it is abusive for working animals to work. I don’t share that view. It is a kind of sanctioned social abuse for working animals to be denied work.

I can’t speak to the Amish universe, only to the families I have met here. These families use their animals instead of tractors and cars, just like the early Americans did. It would be folly to overwork or starve or abuse them, their animals are precious to them, but they are not “pets” or furbabies.

Several families have dogs who sleep inside, are fed twice daily, and are loved and cared for.  Most of the Amish adults I talk to say they don’t keep pets because they are expensive, and they see animals as working tools, not toys or recreation.

Of the five Amish families, I’ve visited, none have puppy mills or have ever had puppy mills or know any other family who breeds dogs in any way.

In a sense, they revere the animals they have. Work is at the center of their lives. And I’ve noticed they are knowledgeable and diligent breeders, of horses and of the dogs I’ve seen.

Their horses are healthy, well-fed, and groomed and show no signs of skittishness, exhaustion, or abuse.

All Amish people are not alike, any more than all other people are. But everyone I have met is averse to cruelty in any form.

-The Amish families are not isolated. They have many friends from outside of their own community; they don’t have much leisure time socializing.

They depend on interactions with neighbors and members of their community.

They need people who will make telephone calls for them, give them rides in emergencies or when they travel, agree to take emergency calls for them from sick or grieving family members elsewhere, and hire them for carpentry and other odd jobs they do for income and baked goods every day but Sunday.

I am reminded of Orthodox Jews, who often hire young outsiders to turn the stove on or off, or turn the lights on when it gets dark on the Sabbath.

They also make and sell garden sheds and tool barns of great quality. They are people of great energy and industry.

When they move into a new area, they immediately set about building a network of support and community. It works both ways; they are always ready to help others.

They are – like worker bees – intuitive builders of community and the best kind of neighbors. So far, they make pretty good friends too.

-Amish have different notions of being photographed.

In general, but not always, they don’t wish to have their faces captured as “graven images.” They are happy to have their horses and carts photographed, and the Amish I’ve met don’t mind their backs and bodies being photographed or being photographed from a distance.

They don’t want their faces photographed, especially up close. They are patient and happy to explain their beliefs and practices.

The best approach is to ask them what they are comfortable with; it varies, but they will tell you.

-The rural Amish tend to be farmers. They are interested in every inch of soil, water, and growing.

The word that most frequently comes to mind when I think of them is gentle. They are gentle people. They lead hard but gentle lives, full of work but free of much of the stress that makes modern life in America so draining at times.

These are the first things that come to mind when I think of my new neighbors and what I am learning about them. I’m grateful and excited to know these people. They have a lot to teach me.

I’ll continue to pass on what I learn, feel and see. Thanks for your supportive and encouraging comments. This is good for me, and I think, also for them.

11 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing what you are learning about your new neighbors and the Amish in general. People are quick to judge what they don’t know about. Just maybe we could all learn a valuable lesson from them.

  2. I thank you for this entry. My assumption is that the Amish are very like any humans, some good some less so but on the whole a gentle, industrious people. It isn’t as if there aren’t plenty of non Amish who also have many, many children.

  3. Thank you for sharing about the Amish people and their lives. In my younger years I read about them and spent time in areas where they lived and shopped in their stores. I took bits and pieces of their life and incorporated it in my life and have alway been grateful for their influence in my life.

  4. Thank you Jon, for sharing details about these Amish people. I have always admired them from afar, but you are making me really like them. I do have friends among the Mennonites here in Georgia, and there are great similarities. I would love to know your Amish friends. They sound like wonderful people to have as neighbors. Wish I had some here.

  5. We sometimes visited the Amish community in Lancaster Co PA when we lived near Philadelphia. I was fascinated by their workshops and found them courteous and very hard working. I especially loved watching several women working around their quilting frames. I was surprised how many people thought their beautiful quilts were expensive. Having done some quilting I really appreciated the hours of work that went into them. We ordered a beautiful oak dining room table from an Amish workshop. We waited several months for it to be completed and it was ultimately delivered by a Mennonite man as they Amish did not drive. I really appreciate your articles as it has expanded my understaning and knowledge.

  6. Thank you for sharing this.it was very enlightening. I have recently read a couple of your books, Dog Days and Saving Simon. Being a country girl from the North Carolina foothills, I really enjoy your writing. God bless you and your family on Bedlam Farm. Best regards, Brenda Harris

  7. I have purchased 2 garden sheds made by the Amish, one when I was living in upstate New York and one here on the south coast of Boston. Both were purchased through local companies who had contracts with Amish craftsmen to produce the sheds. They were custom in every sense of the word, from the size, to color, to type of windows and doors , shutters or not, you name it. The craftsmanship is wonderful. The compliments I get on my sheds is a testimonial to how well made they are. Pride of workmanship translates into pride of ownership.

  8. Thank you for this interesting article. I don’t know if I could work as hard as they do. We remodeled our kitchen and re-faced our cabinets with wood from the Amish. Excellent products.

  9. I love that you are writing about the Amish in your community. I also live in upstate NY (central/Fingerlakes) and shop at Amish and Mennonite stores (truly the best produce and products) and have had wonderful interactions and friends in the Amish and Mennonite communities here, They are wonderful neighbors, their values and honesty are a breath of fresh air in our current society. Keep spreading the good words and helping educate others in our communities about our Amish friends and neighbors!

  10. I appreciate the info on ‘puppy mills’. There is an Amish group who have a ‘booth (tent)’ on our Main Street during the spring/summer months where they sell their goods. Mostly produce from their farm, baked goods, and honey. They ride bicycles and I believe they either own a truck or have an ‘outsider’ as you refer to who transports their products and the tent each weekend. Their (teen) children mow the space on which their tent is set up. I have heard they sell puppies there, which seems to enrage many animal rights groups. I’ve also heard that they’ve been seen purchasing artisan breads from a local outlet and then repackage the loaves and put their private label on them and sell as ‘homemade’. Again, I do not know this from firsthand knowledge. I live on a fixed income (SS alone), so I can’t afford the luxury of purchasing homemade goods. I don’t adhere to rumor. My modus operandi is ‘Live and let live’. As long as any a religion does no harm or promote hatred, the only criteria I look for in a friend or acquaintance is HONESTY. Your posts have aroused my curiosity (I am a journalist). I believe that rather than perpetuate rumors, I owe it to these people to at least pay their business a visit, introduce myself, and draw my own conclusions.

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