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Men In Black

Men In Black

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Several years ago, on a bus ride across Iowa on my way to giving a lecture at a university, I noticed a tall man in the seat behind me; he had a craggy face, long beard, black hat, and glossy black coat.

I wondered what a chasidic Jew was doing in such a remote place, but then realized that he was probably an employee of the huge kosher meat processing plant in nearby Postville. Yet when I asked him about kosher food, he looked at me blankly. Ruefully, I realized my mistake; he was Amish, not Jewish. I felt like Gene Wilder playing the clueless Polish rabbi in the late 1970s Wild West comedy, “The Frisco Kid,” who embraces a group of Amish travelers, calling them his “landsmen” (fellow Jews).

The episode made me think anew about glimpsing the Amish riding in horse-drawn buggies in Lancaster County, which is near where I live in Harrisburg, Pa. And it made me wonder: Beyond surface visual similarities, are there deeper parallels between chasidic Jews and the Amish?

Donald Kraybill, a retired professor at Elizabethtown College (located halfway between Harrisburg and Lancaster) is the foremost scholar on Anabaptist groups, including the Old Order Amish. Kraybill told me that the Amish do resemble chasidic Jews in a number of ways, including their strong sense of community and profound respect for tradition, the Pennsylvania Dutch language that they speak (which, like Yiddish, is derived from a medieval dialect of German), and their decision to give their children only a basic secular education (most do not go to school past the eighth grade).

But Kraybill warned me against painting the 40 different tribes of Amish with a broad brush. Whether or not a particular practice is allowed, Kraybill explained, depends on the bishop, ministers and deacons of the local congregation, who consult the Ordnung, a largely unwritten code of conduct that governs Amish life in much the same way as halacha (Jewish law) does for Orthodox Jews.

Frédérique Green is a French-born independent scholar who lives in England. She has compared the use of cell phones and the Internet by both chasidic Jews and the Amish in America, and has found that both groups struggle to police the use of modern technology by their respective followers.

“They both see technology as a kind of Pandora’s Box,” she told me, “which will be insidious and pollute their beliefs.” But both make exceptions for the use of technology in business; the Amish also grant greater license to teenagers who are going through Rumspringa (the period during adolescence in which they can experience aspects of the outside world, after which they decide if they want to be baptized), and the chasidim allow the Internet to be used to access Torah and Talmud commentaries.

Despite these similarities, chasidic Jews and the Amish rarely encounter each other in real life, although they certainly meet in pop culture; in addition to “The Frisco Kid,” one thinks of Carolyn Meyer’s 1996 young adult novel, “Gideon’s People,” set in the early 20th century in Lancaster County, in which a chasidic boy and Amish boy strike up an unlikely friendship. Or of “Amish Cop/Hasidic Cop,” comedian Matt Ruby’s “Law and Order”-style YouTube video about two policemen who become unlikely partners.

And when they do occasionally cross paths, misunderstandings abound. Rabbi Beryl Epstein, who has been giving tours of Crown Heights for more than three decades, has taken busloads of the Amish through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. As the Associated Press reported of a 2009 visit, a Lubavitcher working in a matzah factory asked the Amish if they were from Uzbekistan. “Afghanistan?” one of the confused Amish farmers replied. Only at the conclusion of the visit did the Amish clear things up by announcing that they were from Lancaster County.

Nowadays, it is more often non-Orthodox Jews who encounter the Amish, especially in the context of synagogue-sponsored CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) groups that source their produce from Amish farms. In 2007, Mark Kaplan helped to launch such a program at Kol Ami, a Reform temple in the Elkins Park neighborhood of suburban Philadelphia; it uses a co-op called Lancaster Farm Fresh, which works with dozens of Amish and Mennonite family farms.

Kaplan said that Amish farmers have come to speak at the temple on “Meet the Farmer” nights, and that members of the CSA were invited a few years ago to build a sukkah on an Amish farm. “They asked us not to play string instruments,” he recalled. (The Amish are permitted to play the harmonica and Jew’s harp, but not the fiddle.) “But they sang a hymn before we left. They seemed just as filled up and grateful as we were.”

Ted Merwin teaches religion at Dickinson College and writes about theater for the paper. His most recent book, “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” won a 2015 National Jewish Book Award.

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