Rumspringa: Religious Ritual Complete with Booze and Condoms

May 7, 2007 (Updated May 7, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Writing style; Quotations; Intimate examination

Cons:Not enough material on the "whys" of Rumspringa

The Bottom Line: This is quite an interesting, intimate look at the Amish ritual of Rumspringa and the Amish lifestyle in general

Religious sects that fall outside the mainstream are often fascinating. Some of them partake in rituals that shock the average person; continue traditions that have been abandoned by other religions; and believe in strict separation of the sexes in terms of permissiveness and gender roles. One religious group that has been around for a long time and continues to hold its own is the Amish, an organized religion whose members behave in ways that are similar to the Pilgrims of yesteryear. But in spite of their excessive prudishness, most every Amish youth is permitted to let loose during early adolescence and experience the “English” world. This Amish tradition is the subject of this book, Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish, a book by Tom Shachtman.

Basic Facts About This Book:

This 286- page book is divided into eleven chapters:

A Note to the Reader
1. Going Away
2. A Glory Old Time
3. Straightforward Conversations
4. Education: Prepare for Usefulness
5. Faith and Doctrine: Stand Fast and Believe the Word as Written
6. Shunning: To Keep the Church “Pure”
7. Farming: The Ideal Occupation
8. Working Away
9. Women’s Lib Would Have a Field Day Among the Amish
10. Seeking Solutions
11. Coming Home- An Essay

Selected Bibliography

Amish young people are sheltered from birth and many of them have never seen the world outside of the confines of their religious communities. This all changes- and changes drastically- when Amish youth approach the age for Rumspringa. During this time in their teenage lives, Amish boys and girls are permitted to partake in all sorts of worldly indulgences ordinarily forbidden. They can drink alcohol, take drugs, have sex, and experience life on the outside to the fullest. The first three chapters of this book deal with different Amish kids and how they have handled their experience with Rumspringa. Some enjoy their newfound freedom very much and hope the experience never ends. Others become burned out quickly and know that the carefree lifestyle in the outside world isn’t for them,

Education is the topic of chapter four and this part of the book covers the attitudes of the Amish community toward education in general. Most Amish children end their formal education at a young age- usually around 13. There is no progression to high school because the Amish not only consider high school unnecessary for their lifestyle, they also consider education a personal risk. The risk they feel is present with education is simple: The more you know, the more likely you are to defect from the Amish community. Thus, it is best to play it safe and deny children any more education beyond the eighth grade. The book talks about the subject of education with direct quotes from kids and young adults who express how they feel about the Amish educational system.

In chapters five and six, the Amish faith and the process of “shunning” and “banning” are discussed. The Amish have a strict moral code that must be followed or else members risk the possibility of being shunned: Excluded from certain activities in the church as well as certain activities with family and other Amish until the forbidden behavior is curtailed. Banning takes this a step further. It is like excommunication and it is reserved for the most serious offenses; one of which is leaving the church after baptism- a common temptation for the young following Rumspringa.

Working and social norms are the subjects of the next three chapters. Work is an integral part of the Amish lifestyle and it is expected that adults work from sunup to sundown. The Amish consider the farm occupation the one best suited to their lifestyle, even though it is becoming less and less popular as means to make a living. Women are expected to take care of raising kids and performing traditional female tasks.

The final chapters of this book talk about the solutions to different Amish dilemmas like Rumspringa and others. These last few chapters talk about the problems created by Rumspringa and whether or not the practice has run its course and perhaps is not effective anymore; or at least, not effective for the right reasons. The book then wraps up with a prediction by the author that the Amish, even though they will continue to resist, are going to have to change if they hope to compete in business and in the social sphere.

Final Thoughts:

Rumspringa is a word that means many things to many people, but translated literally, it means “running around” and it is a ritual that most every Amish youth experiences around the age of sixteen. During this period of time, these youngsters are permitted to discover the world outside their conservative clothing and strict upbringings. For the first time in their lives, these young people are legally permitted to break the Amish moral code by attending parties, driving cars, and using the many conveniences of modern life that most of us take for granted.

This book provides an inside look into the Rumspringa tradition as seen through the eyes of the people who have lived or are presently living through the experience. As an advocate of indulging in life’s many pleasures, I cannot relate in any way to living in an Amish community. But it is a fascinating lifestyle and one I was interested in finding out more about. At first, I thought this would be an explanatory book with subjective opinions from the author asserted as facts. But instead of writing the book that way, author Tom Shachtman takes a different approach. Rather than simply explain the Rumspringa process and let you, the reader, absorb the concept and try to understand what young people are going through, author Tom Shachtman includes quotes from actual Amish teenagers who, in their somewhat awkward and confused way, express in their own words what Rumspringa is like and what it means to them. They talk about their concerns, their fears, their enjoyment of their newfound freedom, and their worry over their future with their families and with the church.

Listening to the different teenagers talk about Rumspringa shows that differences of opinion abound and there is no clear direction that young Amish lives are heading. Some of the youth are led completely astray by Rumspringa and become drug addicts and social outcasts. Others like their freedom and enjoy partying, but also like the church and wish there was a way to combine the best of both worlds. Still others get tired of all the partying very quickly and look forward to a life in the Amish community where they will be nurtured by a social structure that is rigid, but predictable and generally secure.

The actual quotations from kids going through Rumspringa are one of this books many strengths because they let you hear exactly what is going through these young, confused minds as they try to sort out their lives and their futures. Also included are quotations from older people who left the church and the impact that it has had on their lives. These parts of the book were eye- opening for me because I did not realize how harshly ex- members were treated by their former Amish brothers and sisters. They way it works is like this: If you haven’t been baptized and leave the fold, you will be shunned from the community, which means you will not be permitted to take part in certain social events or religious functions. However, if you have already been baptized and then leave the church, you are given the ultimate punishment: Banning, which means you will no longer be able to have the same relationship you once had with your parents and siblings. Your own parents, if they continue to follow the rules (and most of them will), will no longer be able to serve food directly to you, will not be permitted to ride in the same car, etc. There are differences from one Amish community to the next, but they all consider the rejection of the faith after baptism to be the most serious offense and thus deserving of the harshest punishment.

One question I have always wanted answered relates to the retention of young Amish in the community following Rumspringa. According to sources, most young people do, indeed, choose to stay in the faith and officially join the church. I always wondered exactly why these children do this and I always assumed they had a free choice and it wouldn’t matter whether they chose to join or not join. Now that I have read this book, I have a clearer picture of the process. Deciding to join the church is not a completely free choice, like I once thought and like older Amish would have you believe. Yes, it is true that there is no physical force- no one holds a gun to the head of the young adult and insists they join and no one makes physical threats toward children to get them to join. But there is plenty of mental strain and emotional pressure to join the church. Some parents tell their kids they will never get to heaven if they leave the community. Others dangle the threat of banning in front of their kids, pointing out that their relationship will never be the same. With this type of pressure, it is no wonder that kids choose to join in such high percentages. This is not the true, no pressure, no risk, free choice I was led to believe. It isn’t like that at all. A young person is risking the support of his/her family by leaving the church, so it isn’t surprising that so many give in and join, even when they would rather join the outside world and develop their talents.

The Amish enjoy work but they are not permitted the labor saving devices that most people utilize to get their jobs done more quickly. This is talked about in the book, and the author correctly points out that, if the Amish want to continue the tradition of the Amish farm, they will eventually have to give in and accept some change. Farmers in Amish communities often cannot compete with other farmers who enjoy the use of different types of electrical and motor- powered equipment to get the job done faster. In this area, and others, the Amish community has been slowly changing some of its rules because its members realize that tradition can only stay in place for so long. The tradition of Rumspringa also could use some reforming, and so could the Amish attitude toward education. The Amish are exempted from sending their kids to high school on religious grounds. But as they slowly modernize (and I do mean slowly!), they will likely extend education a little more, and since this could lead to more defections, it will likely be met with an agreement to allow members to work in different occupations outside the community. Some change is inevitable, even though there will be those in the community who will fight it tooth and nail.

Rumspringa is an interesting ritual in the Amish life cycle and it marks the Amish as one of the very few religious orders that allow children a complete departure from the normal religious rules and social norms for a period of time. Most young people end up joining the church after Rumspringa because they either get tired of the partying, decide they want to settle down, or figure that joining is the easiest thing to do if they want to stay right with their families. This book by Tom Shachtman is a very good educational lesson on this unusual rite and what it means to those who go through it. Most will join the church; some will not. But they will all have a period of time to reflect on life and their future during their middle to late teenage years, during the time of Rumspringa. It’s an interesting book on a very fascinating subject.

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