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My mom grew up Amish in Pennsylvania before her dad decided to leave his community (more on that later), getting shunned in the process. Given the depictions of my kinfolk in pop culture (Amish Mafia?!), I realize most people probably don’t know much of substance about them in reality.
Amish customs differ in different places, so not all of what I know is even true irrefutably, but here’s to fighting off at least some cultural ignorance with a few facts from a guy who grows a beard and builds shitty wooden spice racks for fun.
Amish is not a race.
When people find out my mom was Amish, they often say, “So you’re Amish?” No. It’s not a blood thing. It’s a cultural / religious lifestyle. Just like you can get back into Korn and JNCOs and thus get shunned by the indie crowd you adopted after middle school.
One size overall does not fit all.
People practice ‘Amishism’ differently in different parts of the country. Where some extreme groups ban colors and belts from their wardrobe, others are down with cell-phone hip clips and baseball caps.
They love volleyball.
Okay, maybe not all of them. But the Amish guys used to roll up their overall cuffs and play lake-beach volleyball on Fridays, and all the English chicks would come scope them out (i.e., my cousins and sisters).
They love playing horseshoes.
At a family reunion I saw the most competitive horseshoe game of my life, during which I bore witness to a ~60-year-old Amish guy freaking out like Macho Man Randy Savage after getting a ringer on his first-ever toss. It was equal parts frightening and comforting, yet almost intrusive on my part, like stumbling upon a majestic primate giving birth in a forest.
Don’t call them Mennonite.
Though they’re fundamentally similar, Mennonites and Amish aren’t the same thing. Mennonites are usually less strict: They typically have cars and use electricity. The men can even be hard to identify, but the women wear un-pleated caps — like yarmulkes, but cuter (several of my cousins married wo-Mennonites).
They have mandatory secular experimentation.
At the age of 16, all the angsty Amish teens pack up their straw hats and bonnets and do Rumspringa, the wild time when they leave their community and go crazy in ‘our’ world, testing the proverbial waters of secularism. What’s really beautiful is that they almost always come back, preferring their simple, tight-knit Amish communities, no more wondering what could be. (According to my grandma, sometimes this happens at 15 “if they can get away with it.”)
They grow religious beards.
After Rumspringa they get baptized and join the Amish Church officially, and the men start growing their beards. When they get married, they stop shaving altogether — excepting the forbidden mustache, resulting in the Lincoln-esque ‘Amish neck-beard.’
They’re all dropouts.
The Amish stop schooling after the eighth grade so they can go into their vocations, including knitting, housework, farming, masonry, and carpentry. Kind of makes you wonder why we bother with another four years.
They linguistically profile us.
You know how people call anyone who speaks Spanish a “Spanish person?” If you’ve ever been referred to as “English” by an Amish person, you know how that feels. Unless they called you a Yankee, their other slang term for the non-Amish.
Yes, they speak Amish.
Low German, Pennsylvania Dutch, or just plain Amish — the Amish language is a dialect of German that’s still not quite German, perhaps similar to Portuguese and Spanish.
They love discount damaged food.
One thing my mom carried on from the Amish is a love of ‘bent-n-dent’ stores — those places where you can buy a dented can of beans or expired Lucky Charms for a quarter. A friend told me he saw the same thing in Missouri, so apparently this extends throughout all our country’s Amish.
Their clotheslines defy physics.
I’ve seen Amish clotheslines run from a barn door all the way to the top of an oak tree a whole damn cornfield away. If you had 8 kids and no electricity, I guess yours would, too.
Electricity? More like selec-tricity.
My grandpa once described his ex-community as not disallowing modernity but staying perpetually 100 years behind it. They could borrow phones, cars, or power tools, just not own them, which he thought was dumb. He eventually got yelled at too many times for rigging up gas-powered appliances and finally just said “Eff ya’ll, I’m out,” and left. Now he lives down the road from them.
They pimp their rides.
Who said a horse-and-buggy can’t be dope? I’ve seen some tricked out with turn signals, headlights, and even boom boxes. Nelly never sounded so right.
They’ve got sweet-ass names.
My grandpa’s name is Cornelius, his neighbor’s name is Enoch, Jedidiah is basically the Amish’s ‘John’ (although John is also their ‘John’), and a family tree shows I’m distantly related to people named Pharabee, Dicey, Lemon, and Spicy.
Weird Al did his research.
If you’re still hungry for more Amish insight, listen to Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise.” That pretty much sums it up.