When the UPN network announced earlier this year that it was creating a new program called Amish in the City, the public was immediately fascinated. The premise of the show is that five Amish youth leave home on what they call Rumspringa, the Amish community's traditional flirtation with freedom. Their time in Hollywood forces them to make a choice: return to Amish life or make a new one in the outside world.

Critics protested loudly: Members of Congress, TV affiliates, and scholars denounced it as a new low in "humiliation TV." But once television critics saw a preview last week, they were more laudatory. The show, which premiers July 28 at 8 p.m. EDT, has elements of fantasy--11 Amish and non-Amish men and women live together in a Hollywood Hills home decorated with straw hats, a photographic mural of a cornfield, and brightly colored Amish-style quilts. Each day, the group goes on an expedition, from bumper-car racing and clothes-shopping to a day at the beach. Despite these elements, say TV critics, the show portrays the Amish sensitively.

But many others still disagree--including Donald Kraybill, one of the nation's leading scholars of the Amish. Beliefnet interviewed him last week.

Are the people in this show actually Amish?

It seems very clear from the description that these are five Amish youth who were raised in Amish homes but have left the community. A construction worker, Randy, has a pierced ear; a factory worker, Ruth, has died hair and smokes cigarettes, her family calls her very bad and she only sees them about twice a year. Construction worker Jonas is a self-described bad-boy; Mose had left the flock in his teens, returned to be baptized and now left again;, he's considered very rebellious and a bad influence.

My impression is that these are basically very worldly-wise Amish, likely young adults who have decided they're going to leave the church, and they're angry at the church. So they're not even technically in Rumspringa. These kids have decided they're leaving the community. They're the wildest of the wild.

And that was a major criticism I had of this whole program initially--that they will not be able to recruit typical Amish kids that reflect and represent typical Amish teenage life. Anybody that they're going to be able to seduce into this and pay them off is someone that is very marginal and for all practical purposes has already left the community. In a sense these are ex-Amish.

Could you tell us more about Rumspringa?

One of the falsehoods that has been part of this story over the last several weeks, and it's been repeated again and again, is the statement that during this period Amish youth leave their homes and leave their community and move away and decide if they're going to come back. That's simply not true. What happens is that, typically, when they're 16, they can go out on weekends with their friends. They may go to singing events, or Amish volley ball games. Before that, they don't go out in the evenings on the weekends. So when they're 16, often the young males will get a carriage, and then at that point they can go out and socialize with their friends. And they often join an Amish group of maybe 100 kids. In Lancaster County, there are over 25 of these Amish youth groups.

How do they hook up with these groups?

They have friends who join the group, or somebody in the group recruits them. It's somewhat driven by geography--for example, someone in southern Lancaster County is more likely to join a group nearby, but someone from Elizabethtown might go to New Holland to a group that meets more frequently there. And the groups sort of move around. They may have a singing in Elizabethtown one night, and two weeks later in New Holland.

Do the groups have names?

Yes, one is called Antiques, one Eagles, one Chickadees. Those are three that come to mind quickly. But they all have little downhome names that come and go. Some of them will persist for a number of years, and then sometimes they'll divide and a new one will emerge.

Do almost all the teenagers join these at one point or another?

It varies from settlement to settlement. There is a great variation in different communities across the nation. The Amish are in 28 different states, and there are 1,400 different church districts.

How many Amish are there in the United States?

About 180,000, including children and youth and adults. Over half of them are under 18 years of age. The families have seven to eight children on average, and nationwide they're retaining 85% or more of their youth. That percentage is higher than before because their way of life is very satisfying--financially, socially and emotionally. The only reason they would leave is for some advanced technology that actually may not benefit them all that much anyway. The church has been quite flexible in what it permits by way of technology, and I think there's more flexibility now than there was in the 1940's and 50's. They aren't allowed to have computers, but they will have generators in some of their shops for certain electrical tools--so there's been a lot of flexibility and adaptation.

What do the teenagers do during Rumspringa when they get together?

Oh, they play volleyball, they have picnics, they'll do outdoor activities, they go hiking or swimming or boating, fishing. I would say these groups vary in how tame and traditional they are and how rowdy they are.

There are always stories about the boys who have the cars, right?

Well, in Lancaster, of the 26 groups, there are probably four or five groups that have a reputation that the boys in them have cars. During this period of time they're really not under the control of their parents, specifically; their parents might not be happy about it, but their parents can't do a whole lot. They're kind of like other teenagers, but they aren't under the supervision of the church yet because they're not baptized. So they're betwixt and between the authority of their parents and the supervision of the church. Some of them will hide their cars, and others will be pretty open about it, or their parents will be aware that they have them.

Where do they store a car?

They may keep them in the local town, or in the neighbor's parking lot or at a gas station or just kind of keep them around somewhere else. They usually aren't seen on the Amish property too much. But the parents likely know that they have them. And then they'll get rid of them when they join the church.

But before that, they go to movies, or go down to the [New Jersey] shore. But even while they're doing that, they're still in the Amish network. Its a little mobile Amish community, so they're still seeing the world and processing it through Amish perspectives.

Because they're only with their own people?

Right. And again, they're just doing this on weekends. Some guys, if they have a job, they might arrange to get two weeks of vacation and they may go west on a hunting trip or go to Canada or something. They can do this because they're not under the rules of the church yet, because they're not baptized. The community makes a sharp distinction between people who are members and who have been baptized. Typically they aren't baptized until they're 18 to 24--they have to be baptized before they're married, which means they may be 21, 22, 23, 24. Until then, they're living at home, they're still working at home, or they're working on a construction job but living at home. And in Lancaster about 95% are going to join the church, so they know they're going to eventually join the church.

And they don't tend to have their baptism before they're 18?

Typically not. A few women may earlier, when they're 16, but it's more likely at 18 or 19. And the bulk of them will get married quite young--they'll be 18, 19 or 20 when they get married. It's most typical that they go into Rumspringa when they're about 16 so that when they're 19 or 20 they are getting married and settling down.

When do they come out of the jurisdiction of their parents?

At 16. It's like getting a drivers' license in our society, basically.

Why are people so fascinated with the Amish?

There are a host of reasons. I think they stir a nostalgia for the past. We have an image that they represent how our great-great grandparents might have lived in the 18th century. I'm not saying this is true. I'm just saying they stir nostalgia for a pure past that we're attracted to. Secondly, they have a sense of rootedness, a strong sense of community--and I think we're attracted to that strong sense of family. They aren't highly mobile like the larger society. Plus, they're downright interesting because they're different.

I think another reason is their stubborn control of technology. I mean the fact that they've been able to stubbornly resist some of the technological innovations stirs our curiosity about how they can be so firm in that and have the courage to do that.

And be apparently happy...

Yes, and have very satisfied lives. We see a sense of meaning and belonging and identity and happiness in their way of life that pulls us toward them. I think part of it may have to do with the stress and disillusionment with modern life--people feel stressed-out by occupational pressures, mobility, economic pressures, achievement pressures. There's a disillusionment that stirs up attraction to a people who have this strong sense of identity and meaning and belonging.

Has the fascination intensified in recent years?

I would say the fascination emerged after 1940. Part of it was the mobility provided by the automobile and super highways that enabled tourists to come see them. Secondly, the stubborn Amish resistance to public education. In the 1950's a lot of them were imprisoned, and that gave them a lot of national publicity. Thirdly, television made them more interesting because more people learned about them and saw them. Also, they're doubling every 20 years and so they're moving into other states, setting up new settlements. So more and more people are coming into contact with them. I think all those factors have continued to increase their visibility and have continued to stir American curiosity about them.

Is this new show a reflection of an intensified interest, or is it just part of a continuum of interest?

I would say probably both. It reflects the interest; UPN wouldn't be doing it if they didn't think there would be a market out there. People are curious about what Amish kids are like, so I think it reflects both a continued curiosity, and I think it's likely to stir more.

Given the uproar about the show, will there be anger? Will it sentimentalize them?

No, I think it will be the opposite. I think because of the nature of these kids it will break stereotypes, and people will be shocked that these are really Amish kids, that these are kids that grew up in Amish homes. I don't think it will sentimentalize them; I think it will create more questions. I think Americans will be pleased to know that there are some Amish who aren't self-righteous and pious. There'll be some relief that they, too, have sinners in their midst. They transgress moral standards like the rest of us, so they're just like other people, so there'll be a kind of relief that they aren't as good as we think they are.

What is your opinion of the show?

I've opposed it on a couple of different counts. First of all, I think the primary intent is just to laugh and then to take commercial advantage of a group. And to basically snicker at people that we feel are inferior to us. We're assuming that Amish knowledge is inferior to our progressive knowledge and so we want to laugh and snicker at them when they see their first BMW or when they see the first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean or Hollywood or whatever ... It's entertainment focused on a particular religious group at that group's expense--so I have a philosophical problem with it.

Related to that is that the kind of young people who will participate in this program are already very worldly-wise. They know what a television looks like, they've used computers, these kids have cars, so the whole program is phony from the get-go because these are not typical Amish kids. Typical Amish kids would never agree to do this--these are ex-Amish kids who can reflect on their Amish upbringing. They're doing it out of a sense of rebellion; they are not the innocent naïve barefoot kids that UPN makes them out to be.

What about the objection that it's wrong to take pictures of them because allowing photographs of themselves goes against their own theology?

First of all, the Amish community has two standards of integrity. The first standard is that they respect the right of young adults to decide whether they want to join the church or not, so they emphasize voluntary choice in religious matters. The families and the church respect the right of a young person to decide whether or not they want to be a member of the church. Until the time they join they're not under the rules and regulations of the church, so these young people are not really violating anything by having their photograph taken.

I would say, however, that using television in this kind of a program is a real cultural slap in the face for the Amish. They have consistently forbidden the use and ownership of television and are forbidden from capturing human images on camera. The line for them is posing for a photograph--if somebody shoots them from the side or from the back, then they haven't posed--they see the moral obligation being with the photographer. The moral line is whether they're willing to pose or not. So in that sense this TV show is a moral slap in the face to the Amish community because historically they've opposed this.

It's even worse than the movie Witness because the movie used actors. These are real people who did grow up in an Amish community. Amish elders would say these kids know better and it's embarrassing to pull the wildest kids out of your community and put them out for public display.

How did you feel about "Witness"?

In general I felt it was very sensitive to Amish values. I show it in my classes when I teach Amish society. There are some minor details that are not right, but all things considered, I felt they worked hard to portray as faithfully as you can in a Hollywood film the values of Amish life and culture. I'm fairly favorable to it.

Could you explain, then, why this new television show is unacceptable and "Witness" was acceptable?

"Witness" described typical Amish life. They worked hard at describing typical Amish values like pacifism--at one point the grandfather hides the gun and says, 'We don't play with that.' "Witness" was fairly sensitive and fairly accurate at describing basic Amish values.

This show is completely different. This is showcasing the most wild, rowdy, rebellious youth and putting them on public display--not actors, but real kids who ran away from home--and holding them up as if they somehow typify the values of Amish life. They typify the opposite of those--the values of Amish life are obedience and self-denial and conformity and participating in the community. These kids are rejecting Amish values by the very fact that they've agreed to do this. They're spitting in the face of their Amish community.

What do you think the upshot will be for the Amish community?

I don't think much at all. They won't see it--I mean, they aren't watching television for the most part. They'll read about it in the newspapers, they'll hear about it a little bit, but they'll just go on and I don't think it will make any difference for them.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad