Party til the Cows Come Home
Aaron Mesh on an Amish rite of passage
To Be or Not
to Be Amish.
By Tom Shachtman. North Point. 286 pp. $25
If a parent sincerely believes that everyone is bound for either eternal paradise or eternal damnation, what could be worse than a child’s selecting the wrong destination? The threat is doubly harrowing for the Old Order Amish, for whom the separation from a wayward child is as real in this life as it will be in the next. Amish adolescents who walk away from their faith do so literally, abandoning the drab attire and buggies of their communities for the fashionable dress and fast cars of the open society. Many of the seemingly excessive strictures in the unwritten rulebook, or ordnung, adhered to by the 200,000 Plain People concentrated in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are designed to bind families together. It’s hard to get far from home when your buggy can travel only 10 miles before your horses need to rest.
How then to explain rumspringa? This “running around” time is a culturally endorsed opportunity for Amish offspring in their teens and early twenties to taste as much forbidden fruit—alcohol, sex, fast cars—as they like, without leaving the faith. Most don’t even leave home. Rumspringa participants can be baptized as soon as they turn 16, or can dabble with experimentation indefinitely. The practice, which emerged when Anabaptists took to farming in pluralist 18th-century Pennsylvania, is essentially an institutionalized period of apostasy, a rush of experience preceding the determination to reject the wider world and join the church permanently.
Consider a typical weekend party described in Rumspringa, journalist Tom Shachtman’s uneven but enlightening study of the practice. While their elders sleep, hundreds of Amish teenagers travel back roads by buggy and the occasional recently purchased car, using cell phones pulled from beneath aprons to find the farm where festivities will be held. “A good party is when there’s, like, 200 kids there,” one reveler explains, “really loud music, and everybody’s drinking and smoking and having a great old time.” Couples wander into the dark pasture to hook up, while Amish drug dealers sell marijuana, cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine. The party ends when it’s time for the hosts to milk the cows.
Shachtman and several colleagues spent more than 400 hours interviewing teenagers and Amish leaders for this book and the 2002 documentary Devil’s Playground. Though Shachtman ably records rumspringa’s excesses in both projects, he aims to provide a sympathetic portrait of confused adolescents faced with a decision between religious order and worldly freedom. The reporting is anecdotal and the pace often slack, but the conversations do reveal subjects who find their liberty unsettling. A young Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, farmer considers a new life but wonders, “If it isn’t any better out there, why would I leave?”
Between 80 and 90 percent of Amish teenagers choose not to leave the order. The deck is stacked—their schooling ends after age 14, they are pressured to avoid socializing with their mainstream peers, and, as Shachtman notes, “the experiences they have on the outside are usually shallow, most of them involving minor excursions into sex, drugs, and rapid transport.” Few gain the imaginative tools needed for radical self-reinvention; for most, the choice is between being an Amish day laborer or a partying factory worker.
Base pleasures, fleetingly encountered, are no match for the safety of familiar community, the support of parents, and the promise of salvation. Says one young man, “It’s in the back of my mind every day: If I don’t change my ways I might not get to Heaven.” In the end, for most who grow up Amish, the God they know is better than the devil they don’t.