- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006


By Tom Shachtman

North Point, $24, 286 pages


“Rumspringa” is the period during which the Amish allow their children, 16 and older, to doff their modest traditional clothing and religious strictures and taste the temptations of the outside world before deciding whether to become baptized and join the church for life. Some teens go the route of fairly sedate adventures, but others engage in wild parties and dangerous behavior complete with, as Tom Shachtman says, “sex, drugs and rapid transport.”

Mr. Shachtman’s title is slightly misleading in that his book is as much about the Amish faith and way of life in general as it is about rumspringa in particular. It is as good an introduction to Amish culture as the average reader could ask for.

Also misleading, I think, is Mr. Shachtman’s translation of rumspringa. He says it derives in part from the German noun Raum, meaning space in the sense of outdoor space to roam about, whereas rumspringa usually is taken to be the Pennsylvania Dutch corruption of the German verb herumspringen, meaning, literally, to jump or run around.

Translation aside, his description of the phenomenon is excellent, using the sort of documentary technique mastered by Tony Parker in “Bird, Kansas,” “Lighthouse” and “Soldier, Soldier” — letting the burden of the story be carried by the characters’ own words. Most of the 400 hours of interviews (conducted over six years) on which the book is based originally were done for a 2002 film documentary, “The Devil’s Playground.”

Rumspringa mostly is practiced in the larger Old Order Amish settlements around LaGrange County, Ind., Holmes County, Ohio, and Lancaster County, Pa. Other Plain People — including, ironically, the slightly less restrictive Beachy Amish — do not permit it; indeed, they question why the Old Order implicitly condones immoral behavior before one becomes a church member that would be an immediate cause for banishment if committed as a church member.

Rumspringa is rather contradictory and does create tension in many of the young people experiencing it. While “ready to party” and eager for “cruisin’ and boozin’,” they express the fear of dying outside the church and not going to heaven.

The reasoning of Old Order leaders seems to be that one must choose the world or the faith, and they want their youth to know what they’re choosing. Once in the faith, there is no turning back; if you do, you will be “shunned,” the formal practice that forbids all church members, including family, to have anything to do with you.

Velda, for instance, decided to leave the church — and her fiancee — only weeks before her wedding. She was shunned. Ruth, on the other hand, left before being baptized and so was not shunned.

Ruth expresses a keen insight: It is the desire for the slower-paced, supportive, unambiguous lifestyle that draws young people back into the fold as much as, or more than, does belief in the religious tenets.

And between 80 percent and 90 percent of them do come back from rumspringa and join the church. Those who do not return are of two types, Mr. Shachtman says: The artistically or intellectually inclined, and disgruntled people yearning for a more materialistic lifestyle.

The author clearly admires the Amish; for one thing, they “differ from most other American Christians in the degree to which they practice what they preach.” In many ways they resemble the 17th-century Puritans, not least in the austerity of their lives and plainness of dress.

Yet he is not uncritical, particularly of attitudes toward women and schooling. Concerning women, he writes that it is “a reflexively misogynist culture in which women are considered weak, dumb, and in need of protection from the world.”

The Amish run their own schools, and education stops with the completion of eighth grade, since that is considered sufficient for the lives and work the students subsequently will lead. Thomas J. Meyers, a sociologist who has taught in Amish schools, notes that they “are critical in retaining the Amish way of life” because their chief lesson is how to belong to the group.

In a closing essay, Mr. Shachtman ruminates on the future of the Amish — whether they can, for example, persist in educational practices designed for an agricultural existence when three-quarters of their adult males no longer work in farming. He compares them to “another black-hatted, ascetic, highly religious, and successfully entrepreneurial group, the Hasidic Jews,” and thinks they could profitably learn from the Hasidim how to integrate educationally and commercially into the outside world without sacrificing their own beliefs or communities.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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