Author whets appetite for more about Amish

Occasionally I come upon a book serendipitously, then find it sufficiently interesting that I decide to review it. Such is the case with this week’s selection. I was browsing a used book store when I came upon “New York Amish,” by Karen Johnson-Weiner (Cornell University Press, 2010).

Quick perusal of the table of contents revealed that over half the chapters focused on communities in the North Country. That was enough to whet my appetite for more information.

The author began with an overview of the Anabaptist movement, a religious philosophy that took root about the same time Martin Luther was precipitating the Protestant Reformation. One early leader was Menno Simons (1496-1561), whose name remains linked to the Mennonites today. It was Jacob Ammann (1644-1730), however, whose disciples used the descriptor “Amish.”

Several concepts distinguished the Amish.Their pacifist stance made them different, as did their determination to stay apart from the world around them. From a phenomenologic standpoint, a major issue was their rejection of infant baptism. To them, baptism was a rite that should come later, in adult years, when a person is able to make an informed decision for himself or herself. Furthermore, these families depend on a rural agricultural existence, considering that the best way to devote their lives to God.

Schisms were a part of Amish life from the movement’s beginnings, as there always seemed to be debate on one issue or another. Failure to follow principles could lead to banning from the community. When this occurred, there was a corollary demand to shun anyone so ostracized. Some disagreements within communities stemmed from differences in willingness to adhere strictly to such punishments for members.

Each individual Amish community lives by its own agreed-upon code, called an ordnung. To be sure, many customs link the different settlements. German continues to serve as a primary language, and there is reliance on prayer and hymn books that are centuries old. But there are differences, some so strongly felt that even nearby communities might not socialize with each other.

Buggy styles vary among settlements. So do styles of dress, especially hats. But some of the biggest differences lie in adaptations to technology. The telephone became one early source of delineation. Some communities prohibit phones in homes, but allow use of public booths; others go so far as to allow cell phones. Similar differences mark use of automobiles and tractors.

Special challenges exist for young people. They attend school through the eighth grade, usually in Amish facilities. There are elaborately prescribed social and courting rituals once members reach a certain age. Still, contact with the outside world is inevitable, whether it comes through work or via random occurrences.

The degree of variation among communities came as a surprise to me, and the author deserves credit for making many of these distinctions clear. She discusses ways in which tradition can lead to conflict with outside society. Though the Amish believe in obedience to civil authorities, discomfort has developed around such issues as compulsory education and child labor laws.

Sometimes when a group leaves a settlement to go elsewhere, it’s in search for better farmland. However, it’s not unusual for the underlying reason to revolve around disagreement with interpretation of religious law. Another reason for moving and establishing a new community may reflect concern about the influences on children and young adults.

Admittedly, I’m left with plenty of questions. What if someone truly desires further education, but wants to remain a member of the Amish community? Does the potential of solar or wind sources for electricity change the equation at all on technology? Are there considerations in accessing modern high-tech health care?

In all, the author has documented a fascinating story. Her book has stimulated my desire to learn much more. For many in the North Country, the Amish are now neighbors. As with any divergent component of a community, there’s value in seeking greater understanding.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.