Review of MennoFolk3: Puns, Riddles, Tales, Legends

Puns, Riddles, Tales, Legends by Ervin Beck

MennoFolk3: Puns, Riddles, Tales, Legends by Ervin Beck. 138 pp. Painted Glass Press. $20.00.

MennoFolk3: Puns, Riddles, Tales, Legends

Ervin Beck

Painted Glass Press, 2022

138 pages


Reading MennoFolk3, the third gathering of Mennonite folk tales by Ervin Beck, puts me in mind of when I was on the staff of the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in the 1980s. We had Senior Week, and over 100 elderly Mennonites would gather for a week with one night called “open mike” where you could tell stories and jokes. They were right out of or we might say right into this book, like the one about the elderly Mennonite man whose first two wives had died, and he was on his third marriage. As he tottered down the aisle, he fell and fainted in front of the officiating bishop. Everyone gasped, all was quiet, but then came the reassuring voice of the  bishop in Dutchified English: It’s alright, stay calm, he’ll re-wive.


Ervin Beck’s version of that dialect joke is on page 73 of his new book, where he places it in the context of puns in which a word in one language takes on another meaning--in this case because of the pronunciation of the English v the German "w." Beck has the joke’s protagonist an Amishman and the action happens at a funeral, but this mobility is the nature of these oral stories, he assures us; they can be transposed from one setting to another as long as there is an element of verisimilitude so the humor works. Actually, that joke was first told to me by the Mennonite pastor and editor John Drescher in the hallways of the Mennonite’s publishing house back in the 1970s. Drescher knew I was bilingual and going to visit the Lancaster Mennonites, so he gave me this humorous background.


That takes me to a half century ago, when our Mennonite curriculum director at the publishing house would tell a nonresistance joke at meetings with Christian education leaders of our conferences. There was the Mennonite farmer who had a cow which was always kicking him when he wanted to milk her. He tried many times to be gentle with her but nothing seemed to work, until finally he said to her: Okay, Sally, I’ve tried everything in being kind to you so you stop kicking me, and you know I can’t beat you. So I’ll give you one more chance. If you don’t stop kicking me, I’ll sell you to my Presbyterian neighbor -- and he’ll beat the stuffing out of you.


This story was told to me during a time when our brand of non-resistant Mennonites were turning to political activism, so I suppose some of the humor came from appreciating the  dilemmas of traditional Mennonite nonresistance. The joke may have Quaker origins and did not make it into Beck's book; although he includes a section on non-resistance, there is none on activist peacemaking or political justice, the emerging pacifist currency during this time. I suppose folk humor tends toward tradition and we tend not to poke fun at ourselves, especially on basic identities; it’s more fun to poke fun at our earlier selves or our more traditional cousins such as the Amish. We all probably do some of this. The majority Old Order Amish do the same in our community when they make jokes about their more traditional neighbors such as the Swartzentruber group.


During most of my adult life I heard these jokes and stories, because of my traditional Amish name and childhood, knowing Pennsylvania Dutch, and being raised in Holmes County, Ohio. I often felt like a confessional booth for older Mennonites in any crowd; they would switch from whatever conference topic, and tell me charming stories of their childhood as well as jokes about the backwardness of other Mennonites. For the men it was mostly funny and gentle condescension, but for some of the adult women caught at middle age in the throes of early feminism and their own lack of formal schooling or professions, it was not funny. There was also anger at the traditional patriarchal Amish Mennonite culture which I represented.


By the way, several years later I told this same folk story in welcoming the Presbyterians to Laurelville for a peace conference. I, as a traditional Mennonite, was trying to express appreciation for our denominational division of labor. But I think for most of the modern Mennonites and Presbyterians in the audience, the joke was mainly on me and what they considered outmoded Mennonite nonresistance.


One new chapter in this volume is Beck’s collection of bawdy tales. Many Mennonites and Amish, especially in traditional rural settings, tell ribald stories and jokes orally among themselves but almost never in print. So, here is one I heard (and told) various times at Laurelville and may give a feeling for the genre. A Jewish, Catholic and Mennonite couple had died and were approaching Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. Each couple gave its credentials hoping for admittance, but then Peter asked each man about his wife’s name. The Catholic said Sherry, to which Peter replied: just as I thought; you Catholics think of nothing but alcoholic drinks; wine is a mocker. I’m sorry. The Presbyterian was next and he said his wife’s name was Penny, and again Peter replied: just as I thought, you Presbyterians think about nothing but money, the root of all evil. I’m sorry. Finally, the humble Mennonites arrived and having overheard the earlier conversations the man turned to his wife. Fanny, he said, let’s just turn around; I don’t think we have a chance here.


But let’s get to the book. Readers who take some interest in the oral folk tradition are indebted to the author Ervin Beck, who is an accomplished scholar of American, English and Mennonite literature, based at Goshen College in Indiana. He has also given time to this most humble of literary disciplines: folk life and art. This is his third book in the series, which he readily admits is too esoteric for the general reader. Still, he says, he made the book “to preserve ephemeral artifacts of a Mennonite-Amish culture of a certain era that is rapidly succumbing to mainstream interests and tastes.” I at least would like to think that several generations from now, some student or a great-grandchild will find it of interest to learn more of how Mennonite and Amish life was lived and how they entertained themselves in mid-20th century rural America.


One senses that although most of these stories are told by modern mid-western Mennonites during the second half of the century, Beck wants to give a nod to the traditional eastern Mennonites personified by the bishop George R. Brunk Sr. of Virginia during the first half of the century. However, to do this he relies on a literary source, John C. Wenger’s biography of Brunk, Faithfully, George R (Harrisonburg, VA 1978) and the conservative monthly publication Sword and Trumpet. Because Beck gathered most of the material for this book from live storytelling events and oral conversations with friends, one wonders how well this chapter from published sources fits in this folklore collection. But it's in a good spirit.  


Finally, there is a churchly connection here and an irony in these stories, which were told a half century ago when the Old Mennonites telling these jokes were a big-tent denomination, modernizing but still encompassing the many traditional, rural and conservative Mennonites, having a membership of about 100,000. But today, this denominational ecology has greatly changed. This same denomination, in spite of a merger, has been reduced by internal divisions to a group half that size and appears on the way to the status of the Philadelphia Quakers in America or the Dutch Mennonites in Europe, both with great educational institutions, but few actual religious adherents, hence diminished Christian influence.


Reading these stories today as religious history has a little of the feeling of reading sour grape jokes of people who thought history was on their side; they had entitlement and enlightenment on the way to becoming refined urbanites. Now, however, the progressive religious domain has been overtaken by the folks who had been the butt of their jokes: unwashed traditional Mennonites and Amish. These folks are thriving in membership and economics and today carry their distinct brand in congregational life and sectarian community, even gaining the imagination and admiration of large sectors of the North American public.


But let’s end on a positive note on the more assimilated Mennonites and one of the personal legends Beck collected. The Mennonite seminary professor June Alliman Yoder and some friends of Goshen, Indiana, in 1987 traveled to Chicago for a night out of dinner and theater. Along the way, they stopped at a rest plaza, and Alliman Yoder  sang out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the stall of the restroom. This singing led to the party meeting a famous singer and actress: that’s right, the “Hello Dolly” Pearl Bailey, who happened to also be in the restroom on her way to Chicago.


That’s Alliman Yoder’s version, but like many good stories, this account of meeting Pearl Bailey singing in a restroom has gone through a number of variants, including fictional accounts where the setting and protagonists have changed, even where the song is no longer “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” but 606, the “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” anthem. Beck traces the variants, placing them in context as the story evolves into what he considers an unambiguous Mennonite legend. I’m only giving the outlines here, but we’re now quite a distance culturally if not physically from rural Shipshewana, and the oral tradition still seems to work among modern Mennonites. And I suspect some of our grandchildren, especially as they get older, will recall stories and tales such as these as readily as our past generation has recalled theirs. Ervin Beck and his books signal the way.   


Levi Miller

Wooster, Ohio

January 24, 2023    




















About the Author

Levi Miller Levi Miller was born in 1944 in Holmes County, Ohio, and lived most of his adult life in western Pennsylvania. A writer and editor, he spent his professional life working for Mennonite institutions, including a 25-year tenure at the denominational publishing house in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. During the 1980s, Levi and his family did several years of service with Eastern Mennonite Missions in Venezuela. He is author of the novel Ben’s Wayne (Good Books, 1989), and his memoir Signifying:The Education of Levi Miller appears on a blog and in print (Goodwill Book Exchange, 2021), He and his wife Gloria are retired and live near their grandchildren on a small farm near Wooster, Ohio.