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Book review: "New York Amish" by Karen M. Johnson-Weiner

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New York State now includes more than 10,000 Amish people in 25 settlements, many of them in the North Country. In her book New York Amish, Karen Johnson-Weiner explains some of the history and customs of the Plain people. Betsy Kepes has this review.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

The first chapter I turned to in New York Amish was chapter 3: St. Lawrence County’s Swartzentruber Amish: The Plainest of the Plain People. These are the people that interest me the most, the people who drive buggies with iron wheels through Canton and Potsdam, the people who won’t put orange warning triangles on the backs of their buggies, the people who have farms along the roads I travel and who advertise with simple signs—Eggs, Maple Syrup, Quilts. No Sunday sales. Who are these people who live apart?

The answer is fascinating. Johnson-Weiner writes “While we may see the Amish as a people trapped in a time warp—nineteenth-century pioneers somehow misplaced —-the Amish are, in fact, twenty-first-century people, daily confronting modernity, evaluating its impact on their lives, and making choices about how they will live in the world.” When the cheese factory in Heuvelton closed, the Amish community there, a  people who use no electricity at home, decided to build bulk cooler milk dumping stations tied to the electrical grid. Without this “modern” adaptation, the community would not have been able to continue to dairy farm and for the Amish the agricultural life is the best way to stay apart and live out their values.

Johnson-Weiner’s book is scholarly but accessible. Her first chapter is an excellent brief history of the Amish and she follows that with six chapters describing different NYS Amish communities, from Burke in Franklin County to Chautauqua County to settlements in the Mohawk Valley. All the Amish in NYS arrived looking for inexpensive farmland and many left communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio that they believed had “drifted” and become less Amish. Within each chapter she lets the people speak for themselves, quoting conversations and material from Amish newspapers. While pondering the difficulties of keeping Amish ways, a woman says, “the world has traveled, and the Amish have walked the same trail, but slower.”

For the Amish, the group is more important than individual desires. Each Amish community worships together and has its own Ordnung, or rules. If the members of the group cannot agree, some families may leave to begin a new community. In St. Lawrence County the Swartzentrubber communities are all ultra conservative but because of disagreements in Ordnung they form three separate groups that will not fellowship with each other, meaning no intermarriage or exchange of ministers.

Johnson-Weiner fills her book with details about Amish daily life. Many children in the Swartzentrubber communities may not visit a town or village until they are finished with school at age 14 or 15. When children turn 17 they join the “Youngie” or Amish youth group and have hymn singing and supper together on Sunday night. This is the uncertain time, when young people must decide if they wish to get baptized and become fully a part of their community. 10 to 15 percent of Amish young people decide not to join and a smaller percentage of Amish do receive baptism but later disobey their community’s Ordnung and face Meidung, or shunning.

After reading Johnson-Weiner’s book I felt I’d been given an enthusiastic guided tour of the New York State Amish community. Part of me though, wanted more. What happens when a person who has only a limited eighth grade education is shunned?  How far does religious freedom extend when it clashes with state educational and environmental laws? I hope Johnson-Weiner will answer more questions as she continues to publish thoughtful books about our Amish neighbors.    

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