I first became aware of the Amish practice of Rumspringa from watching The Devil’s Playground, a documentary about Amish teenagers. After viewing that movie, my understanding was that Rumspringa is an Amish person’s last chance to engage the “English” world of sin, debauchery, and other types of fun. I figured that it made good sense: by allowing its members to sow their wild oats, the Amish religion can retain at least some of its members, should they feel vacuousness in the secular world of ironic t-shirts and gangster rap music. It was my small-minded assumption that everyone in the world wants to watch shitty prime-time sitcoms and play with their digital watches which led me to believe that Rumspringa is a structured allowance to sin, an attempt to abate any future curiosities and non-Amish leanings. I mean, those Islamic fundamentalists are just jealous and hate our freedoms, right? All they want is to sink their teeth into a salty Quarter Pounder with Cheese. But they can’t, and that frustrates them, so they hijack planes and stone women to death.
Then I read the book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman. Let me say right away that you should not read this book. It is very poorly-written, and in fact comes across like a medium-grade master’s thesis for a third-tier university. It’s not so much an essay as it is a string of direct quotes from Amish teenagers, who–surprise, surprise–are not a whole lot more articulate than their “English” counterparts. Curse words are inexplicably redacted with a bracketed “[expletive deleted]” like it’s the fucking Nixon White House tapes or something. Buddy, if I’m old enough to read about Amish kids smoking crystal meth, then I can probably handle a few instances of the s-word. The writing is shitty and dry, and may have benefited from a few bad words peppered among the ridiculous dialog.
That being said, the information contained within Rumspringa was very interesting. I came to learn more about Amish life and mores, and had a few of my preconceptions shattered. For one thing, like in any religion, there are many different sects and beliefs under the umbrella of the Amish religion. Amish people do not eschew every modern convenience, and in fact there are regular meetings among Amish communities to determine what, if any, technologies can be applied to daily life. It’s a struggle to keep a balance between living an austere existence, which will involve some suffering, but still working efficiently in a way that will compete with “English” suppliers of the same goods. For instance, some communities would not allow gas-powered plows on their farms, though their use had been suggested year after year. But most of these communities will have one communal telephone, which is integral to doing business. And if that telephone gets used occasionally to contact distant relatives, well there’s no great harm done.
More interesting to me was the actual philosophy behind Rumspringa. It has little to do with sowing your oats, as I thought, and everything to do with the Anabaptist tradition of only accommodating members who join of their own free will and cognizance. People are baptized as adults, and that baptism is a pact between the adherent and his church, not a direct communion with God. In fact, being baptized Amish doesn’t itself guarantee passage to heaven, which is the usual cornerstone promise a church offers for your tithing. People born to Amish families are raised in the Amish tradition, but when they are old enough to think for themselves, they can then choose to join the church or not. While deciding, they are free to live life however they wish.
I had assumed that Rumspringa would last roughly between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one, but I found that many Amish-born people stay in a technical limbo for much longer than that. The trick here is that if you don’t join the Amish faith, then you will simply be the “English” relative of an Amish family, allowed contact with them and even to stay at home, if the father sees fit, until you make a choice one way or the other. But if you do join up and then decide to change your mind later, then you stand a possibility of being shunned; contact will be severely limited and you will not be allowed to share meals or in functions with the community. Seems to me that the best way to hedge your bets would be not to join, that way you can sin to the degree that you like and still talk to your mother from time to time. But that is, of course, my secular view of things. Certain churches demand allegiance as a kind of threat: join us or your family, your community, and your God will hate you. The Amish church is, in this sense, more liberal than some other Christian denominations. You should only join the church knowing full well what is expected of you and because you think it is right, not because you’re afraid of losing touch with your family.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with an Amish woman, who lived on a farm in southern Wisconsin with her large family. She invited myself and my friends in for some incredibly weak tea and bland ginger cookies. The house was cozy but relatively bare, not jammed with lamps and framed pictures and plush furniture like my own home. The floor was covered in a fine, brown dust of tracked manure. While the younger girls tended to the youngest children, I conversed with the matriarch of the family who was very pleasant and accommodating. It was a few years after 9/11, and the Amish woman asked me about it. I began to relate my personal story of the day, when she cut me off: “No, I mean, what happened that day? Some structures were blown up? Did it affect New York?” She was aware that a serious event had occurred, but didn’t know any of the specifics. Trying to look at it from her perspective, I can’t say that any of the specifics mattered. There was a great loss of life, the president used that to justify military action, and the exact figures and dates are minor compared to those points. From my perspective, the events of 9/11 were a turning point for world politics and how America would be perceived in the twenty-first century. To this woman, it was just more calamitous noise coming from the secular world. How did the events of 9/11 affect this woman, her family, and their farm? Most importantly, how did it impact the price of eggs?