2013-01-30 – I am riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder somewhere between Columbus and Milwaukee, WI. From the looks of things, we are getting close to Milwaukee. No more farms. Suburban homes through the trees.
One aspect of riding the train is that you encounter a lot of Amish people. I don’t frequently talk to them. Partly because I don’t frequently talk to anyone on the train. Partly because they have the same habit. Partly because the more worldly Amish passengers are not of my generation. They are kids, many younger than my own boys, who are 19 and 21. And despite being kids they are clutching spouses and exchanging secrets in their own little world. The older ones speak the Amish language known as Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a dialect of Yiddish.
Today I met a young Amish man who was traveling alone. He came to La Crosse and beyond from Mississippi for his grandmother’s funeral. He had a bit of a southern accent, though he had also lived in Ohio, somewhere near Cleveland. Of course, I grew up in Ohio and I heard southern accents there. This young man is probably around 30. He has pre-teen kids. He lives on a farm but runs a saw mill powered by a gasoline engine that drives pulleys. No electricity. I saw one of these contraptions once near Horicon, WI. Very efficient, but very Rube Goldberg-ish.
Which brings me to the Yiddish. You may have laughed when I said that Pennsylvania Dutch is a dialect of Yiddish. Most people would say that Pennsylvania Dutch is a dialect of German, but modern German, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Yiddish are all three branches from an older Germanic language. To say that German is the main language and Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch are dialects is just a culturally biased convention. Since I grew up hearing Yiddish, not German, hearing my Amish fellow passengers speak their language reminds me of my own grandparents, who spoke Yiddish.
And the outfits, the beards and the head coverings and the modest dress seem nothing more than a rural version of the dress worn by my Orthodox Jewish neighbors. It’s very haimish (comfortable, familiar, home-ish). Haimish, I believe, is the Yiddish cognate of Amish. (Full disclosure, this is not the source of the word Amish, as I found out, but it’s a nice story anyway.)
So, what’s up with the train riding, the no driving (but willing to ride), the no electricity, and the Rube Goldberg industry, which seem to be work-arounds to enable the Amish to make a living in the modern world without violating the precepts of their religion? These practices seem very similar to the anti-modern elements of Sabbath observance for Orthodox Jews.
There is no doubt in my mind that modern society has lost a lot in the way of community, leisure, mutual comfort, and spirituality in its rush to adopt highly efficient technology and business “solutions.”
Are the haimish ways the only option for those of us who feel that modern life has gone too far? Must I adopt what I consider to be fetishistic ritual to hold the line against the evils of modernity? Can’t I keep the good (like my iPad) and reject the bad (World of Warcraft)? Or do I have to reject the whole package—and, in so doing, embrace a different package that I don’t fully like either?
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