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The Amish: They’re a lot like us

Kramers share knowledge of Iowa’s Amish neighbors with full house at library

April 1, 2019
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

Who among us has not wrinkled our nose in disgust at the sound of our loved one kutzing into a bucket? Haven't we all wished some people would practice wonnernaus when it comes to our personal business? When the chips are down, we've all had moments in which we throw up our hands and say "Yah, well," or Ja, wohl. And at night, when the stars come out, it can be a big relief to tuck our little Schnickelfritzes into bed and outen the lights for some quiet time.

These and other Pennsylvania Dutch-English terms populated a short glossary provided to the 40 or so residents in the audience of an Estherville Public Library presentation of "The Amish: Our Neighbors," by Dyersville residents Don and Dianne Kramer.

Iowa's Amish population, spread over 20 communities, was roughly the size of Estherville at 7,000 in 2010.

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To understand how the Amish live, imagine two neighbors, Hannah and Jacob. Hannah's the oldest of what will be six children, and Jacob, as it turns out, is the youngest of eight. Hannah, at four, is already sometimes helping her baby siblings with small tasks, because in her Amish family, the children are taught they have a purpose to help the younger ones. As Hannah gets older, it's considered a privilege, not a chore to help with the babies as each much loved new life is welcomed into the family.

The children know nothing of sex or birthing, so as they're sent away at the end of each of their mother's pregnancies, they come to school and triumphantly say, "We got a new baby," as if the baby just appeared, because in a sense, that's what did happen. Gender roles are defined immediately as sometimes each new arrival is called a little woodchopper or a little housekeeper.

Hannah is pinned and tied into a dress and dark pinafore, a prayer kapp and bonnet and bare feet in nice weather. She'll go to school through about age 13 or eighth grade, after which she will spend a few years at home by her mother's side learning to keep house. Her education is to that point equal to Jacob's. He finishes school at the same age and begins work alongside his father and other men in the community in carpentry or another trade, learning to sustain a large family and perform the tasks necessary to sustain the community.

Hannah and Jacob will be tri-lingual as they are spoken to in Pennsylvania Dutch (which is not a written language), learn English and some standard German in school, and hear and sing, and read scripture in standard German, the spiritual language, at church.

To the Amish, church is not a building, but is held in homes. Amish homes are built with large, open main rooms to host 25 or so families in a congregation for three-hour worship services that have no instrumental accompaniment and old hymns and chants sung in unison so that no one's voices stand out from the rest.

Once Hannah and Jacob are between ages 16 and 25, they have some choices to make. They are sent into the world to experience it, so that the later decision to stay in the community and church (a decision made by the vast majority of Amish youth) is in full consent. Having experienced parties and electronics, perhaps cigarettes and alcohol, dressing as the "English" dress, working on the outside, and did we mention parties, to come back with the full knowledge of life "out there," the choice to be an adult in the community is fully formed. This is called Rumspringa, and happens before "believer's baptism," the practice of the Anabaptists to baptize adults, not infants or children.

Once back from Rumspringa, Hannah and Jacob will attend social events in their church district. These all-day events start out with all generations at a picnic or cookout, playing volleyball in the meadow, and wandering by the lake or river, and the young people linger into the evening. If a young man is interested in a young woman, he might ask, "Could I drive you home?"

Just like us, only in a horse-driven buggy, and they drive to her family's home to hang out and get to know each other.

They're allowed in the bedroom. Really. They can talk privately in a bedroom, but there will be a board between them on the bed and/or they'll be sewn into blankets so they can hardly move. Most people think even this would not stop a determined couple, and according to Dianne, that's true to a point. Courtship mostly consists of spending time with their families and ends with a wedding during the winter months when there's less activity with farming, construction, and other common Amish occupations.

There are pre-marital pregnancies despite the ban on pre-marital sex. Should that happen, a woman can raise the child as a single mother within her family and with help from her mother, grandmother, aunts, cousins, siblings and the greater community. Or the baby could be placed for adoption within the Amish community. Or marriage preparations are hastened if the couple wants to start their family right away.

Hannah makes a dress for her wedding, which will also serve as a dress for church and special occasions for years to come. She adds it to her four: wash, wear, church and a spare. To this, she pins a white overlay, and she decides she will be married in it and buried in it. Jacob's mother makes him a new black jacket, white shirt. The district bishop takes part in the baptism before Jacob and Hannah are married. The couple may live with Hannah's parents until their own house on the property is built in the warmer weather. In a three-hour ceremony, the ministers of the community review with Jacob and Hannah their commitments to God and the community, and they pledge their bond to each other. Then the hundreds of guests have a meal at Hannah's parents' home. There's no instrumental music, dancing, or rings. Jacob starts to grow his beard. In the weeks after the wedding, Jacob and Hannah go to visit their neighbors and relatives to thank them for coming to the wedding, and often at these visits, they will receive practical gifts for their home together.

While the Amish prefer to use essential oils and other homeopathic health treatments, and they have midwives to help with childbirth, they do go to chiropractors and in cases of cancer and other very serious illness, to medical doctors.

They end their lives much as they begin them, with their loved ones praising God for their lives. They do send the bodies of people who have died to be embalmed by the local funeral home, but do not have makeup put on: if they die in an accident, they'll be viewed over three days with bruises and scars intact.

The Kramers have given over 100 programs on the Amish in Iowa. At the end of the presentation, they gave away in a drawing a jar of rhubarb jam, a loaf of apple bread, and a batch of cookies, the latter two baked in wood-fired ovens.



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