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The Amish Joke Back


Chapter 5


Ideally, in a chapter devoted to stories that show Amish people in a positive light, or gaining the upper hand in a debate, all of the examples should come from the Amish themselves in order to show how they define themselves, positively, through traditional narratives. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As I mentioned before, that would require recording their stories as told in their native language, Pennsylvania German. Although I have Amish friends, I do not speak their German dialect. Consequently, I cannot "pick up" stories from natural conversational flow and it would be awkward, if not impossible, to arrange for story-telling sessions with Amish narrators, around a tape-recorder.

Most of the stories in this chapter come from the same Mennonite informants whose stories satirizing the Amish appear in the preceding chapter--which suggests that Mennonites identify themselves with Amish as often as they dissociate themselves from them.

The stories here that probably come closest to revealing Amish self-perceptions are taken from the published writings of William R. McGrath (1931-2015), who converted to the Beachy Amish (Amish-Mennonite) faith and for many years was a leader of that denomination. He became an ordained minister in 1956 and attracted a following of Beachy and Old Order Amish who were interested in missions and herbal medicine. Eventually he led a colony of believers to Costa Rica and later became a missionary to Ireland, where he died.

His defense of the Amish community (including himself) resulted in a number of pithy stories included in his book, Amish Folk Remedies for Plain and Fancy Ailments (Minerva, Ohio, 1984), which appealed to Amish readers. The source is duly recognized below. Several stories are also reprinted from Elmer L. Smith's Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore (1960), which includes non-Amish variants of some of the stories that McGrath offers as Amish narratives. The other stories come from oral performances that I tape-recorded.

The Smart Dutchman

As a man with a college education, McGrath was well aware that the Amish today suffer from the old American stereotype of being the "Dumb Dutchman." He explicitly recognized the association in two brief accounts. In the second one, he accepts the Amish as fitting into the generic category of "Dutch" but illustrates the smartness of a Dutch—here probably meaning Amish--waitress. In the first story, dumbness is not denied, but smartness is found in the Amish boy's witty response. Both show that the Dutch, including the Amish, are smarter than their critics. Indeed, in almost all of the stories borrowed from McGrath below, smart, witty retorts create the appeal of the pithy narratives.

*Dumb Dutch? Many stories are told about the supposedly "dumb Dutch." What appears to the public to be "dumb" may often be a kind of a shrewd peasant logic. An Amish proverb says, "We get too soon old and too late smart." An Amish boy tried to explain the backwardness of his brother to the teacher by saying, "It ain't he can't learn, it's just he doesn't remember anything he learns." A tourist complained about the chicken being tough in a Dutch restaurant and the Dutch waitress replied: "It's tougher when there's none." (McGrath 73)

The story that circulates most widely in Mennonite circles and defends the Amish against dumbness is the following:

*A New York tourist was traveling west on Route 340 near Intercourse, Pennsylvania, when he noticed an elderly Amishman pumping water just in front of his barn. He stopped his car and called to the Amishman, "Could you tell me how to get to route 30?" The Amishman pretended he didn't hear and kept on pumping water. Again the tourist called louder, "I'm lost. Could you please tell me how to get to Route 30?" The Amishman kept on pumping. Rather angrily the tourist yelled, "I knew you Amish were dumb, but I didn't know you were so dumb." The Amishman stopped pumping and replied, "I may be dumb, but at least I ain't lost."

The narrator thinks "this rather humorous incident took place near Intercourse, Pennsylvania, several years ago." However, the wide, generic circulation of the tale shows that it is a traditional story, and probably even one told long ago about Pennsylvania Dutch people in general and more recently localized with the Amish. Does the Amish reply about his not being "lost" also have spiritual implications?

The Amish and Other Groups

In Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Elmer L. Smith included two stories that compare the Amish to other religious groups. The first story probably vindicates the Amish as a practical, rural people, even though it implicitly criticizes them for lacking the spiritual and moral values of the other two groups. The second story also seems to vindicate the conservative Amishman, whose "motion" supersedes and cancels out all of the previous three:

Acceptable Vocation
Image: Don Swartzentruber

Acceptable Vocation

*A story is told that reflects the interest an Amishman takes in his herd, and at the same time the shrewdness of the Amish as compared to other farmers. A Quaker, a Hutterite and an Amish farmer were given two cows each. The Quaker gave one of his cows to a less fortunate neighbor; the Hutterite turned his two cows over to the elders of his communal group, who in turn gave him some of the milk; while the Amishman kept one cow and traded the other one for a bull. (Smith 19)

*The Amish people favor the maintenance of the small country school with all its traditions of the past. Most communities have abandoned the one-room school in favor of consolidated schools. The story is told of a meeting of a local school board in Lancaster County, at which time discussion was centered on building a new school to replace the old one-room school. The board was composed of an Amishman, a Methodist, a Catholic and a Presbyterian. The following motions were made [and passed?] in successive order: Catholic: "I move we build a new school house." Methodist: "I make a second move that we build the new school on the same ground where the old school is." Presbyterian: "I make a third move that we use the material from the present school to help build the new one." Amishman: "I make a fourth move that we stay right in the old school house until the new one is completed." (Smith 19)

The logic of the stories requires that, for the nonce, we disregard the fact that the Amish and the Hutterites have never settled close to each other and that an Amishman is not likely to serve on a public school board.

Defending Peculiar Customs

A number of stories replicate the encounter of the tourist-outsider with Amish people and show the Amish defending their odd practices with witty retorts:

*One Amishman was pointed at by an obese tourist lady who said: "Look at the odd man!" Returning her look, he saw her paint, powder, artificial hairstyle, gaudy clothes and bulging shorts, and could not resist replying: "It wonders me who is really the ODD ONE!" (McGrath 71-72)

*Another tourist is reported to have said to an Amishman, "I once grew a beard like yours, but when I saw how terrible I looked, I shaved it off!" The Amishman coolly replied: "I used to have a face like yours, too, and when I saw how terrible it looked, I grew a beard." (McGrath 72; Smith 19)

*The Amish are curious about television, rock music, radios and the drug culture, but they avoid all these things because they see the results are crime, juvenile delinquency, divorce, nervous breakdowns and social disorders. An Amishman was asked if he did not miss radio and television. He replied, "They are selling something I don't need: entertainment, multiplying your wants for things you don't need, and discontentment. It is not so much what you eat that makes you sick, but what is eating you because of what you are looking at and listening to. I don't envy you, I pity you."(McGrath 75)

Notice the blunt, aggressive put-downs that create the rather dark humor in these stories. Does that characterize the Amish sense of humor? Or is it a manifestation of McGrath, the preacher-prophet who is reporting the stories? The latter possibility is found in a final story from McGrath that ends in a lesson from the Bible instead:

*While some Amish are gullible, as in any group of people, most are quite shrewd enough not to panic like many of their English neighbors. Watching a parade of protestors against nuclear war, an Amishman was asked, "Aren't you afraid of the Third World War?" He replied, "The Bible says there will be wars and rumors of wars until the End, then Jesus will come. Only a fool would fear the wars and not fear God Who will judge all mankind." (McGrath 74)

Outsiders may not find humor here, but the Amish might, especially since the story characterizes the enquirer as a "fool," as do the more humorous stories that precede it. The possibility that blunt putdowns are relished by the Amish comes from a story told by a non-Amish informant about an incident he claimed to have observed. The fact that the put-down is not clearly relevant to the conversation that leads up to it suggests an interest in put-downs per se. But the woman's retort may equally be a vindication that the Amish indeed do not and should not "see things alike" other groups.

*There was an Amish woman among the men and women waiting in a doctor's office in Nappanee [Indiana]. And one of the non-Amish men was discussing denominations and said, "Why can't they get together? Why can't they all see things alike?" And then another gentleman said, "If they did, you would never have gotten a wife." And [the first man] said, "I would have gotten her all right." And then the stately Amish grandma said, "If all the people would see alike, no one would have wanted you."

A story from real life shows a young Amish woman using the put down in a—to Mennonites—humorous way. It was told to me by the Mennonite man who wore the shorts:

*A young Amishman by the name of Wenger was doing his [alternate to military] alternate] service at the [Mennonite Biblical] seminary here [then at Goshen College, Indiana] as custodian. His wife came to work at our house. But as is so often the case, I had to go pick her up out in the country where they lived. This one summer day I was wearing shorts—Bermuda shorts. Nevertheless, when we finally did get to Eighth Street, she asked me, "You're Mennonite, aren't you?” I said, "Yeah. Why did you ask?" "Well, because of those shorts that you're wearing. Is that really modest?" I said, "Oh, well, I'm just wearing those because it's so insufferably hot." "Well," she said, there are some places where it's a lot hotter!"

Other kinder, gentler stories told about Amish by Mennonites also defend, in their own way, Amish practices:

*An Italian visitor, who grew weary of the long, drawn-out [Amish wedding] ceremony, said, "It takes you too long to tie the knot." To which his Amish friend replied, "But have you ever seen one of our knots come loose?" -- John Ruth

*Big Perry B. Miller from Topeka—he's dead and gone now; gone to his reward—was an Amishman that always had a lot of fun. He was a quick wit. He had a Beachy Amish man, who had a beard and a black hat, with a van, take a whole load [ofAmish] out west. At the one place where they stopped for gas, the attendant at the gas station was pumping gas and Big Perry B. was standing there and [the attendant] looked in the van, stroked his chin a little and says, "Indiana!" And Perry says, "Yes." [The attendant] says, "Does everybody in Indiana have beards?" And Big Perry paused a little and he said, "No. The women don't."

*An Amishman was brought before the judge and the court to testify as to the kind of car that was involved in a certain kind of accident. [The Amishman] was scratching his head and trying to remember whether it was a Pontiac or a Buick. The judge says, "Can't you tell the difference between these kinds of cars?" And [the Amishman] turned around and said to him, "No," he says. "Can you tell the difference between the different kinds of buggies you see on the road?"

The dumb outsider who gawks uncomprehendingly at Amish people is put in his place by one story:

*A tourist from New York came to Lancaster County to look for the Amish. And he was frantically searching for them all over. So finally he asked one of the people, who happened to be a Mennonite. The Mennonite was rather protective of the Amish and also had a good sense of humor. He says, "Oh, you won't find any of the Amish now. It's their mating season."

The following story possibly derives from some Mennonites' insistence that you can tell an Amishman by his posture—bent slightly forward, walking in a rather lumbering gait, arms akimbo or clasping hands behind his back—which implies his rural background and hard work as a farmer. Here an Amishman embraces that identity in a self-deprecating way:

*A family of Amishmen, visiting the Pittsburgh Zoo, were standing in front of the monkey and apes display [demonstrates posture: feet spread apart, arms hanging freely]. When they turned around, they discovered many people grouped behind them, staring at them. So the Amish father walked away, imitating the walk, posture, and movements of an ape, saying: "We just escaped from the cage."

Story for Story Sake

Even William McGrath, preacher and prophet, appreciated an "Amish" story for its own sake, as shown by the two that follow. Notice, however, that the first one invokes a Bible verse for its justification.

*Because the Bible says, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine," the Amish appreciate humor. One Amishman replied to a man who splashed mortar on him and asked if he was hurt. "No, I'm just mortified!" (McGrath 72; Smith 21)

*A group of school boys tried to scare little Amos, an Amish boy. They jumped out at him with an imitation skeleton. He didn't bat an eyelash so they asked, "Aren't you afraid of spooks and skeletons?" Amos replied, "Why, there ain't no such thing as a ghost, and a skeleton is nothing but a stack of bones with the people scraped off.” (McGrath 74; Smith 26)

One story comes from an ex-Amish informant from the Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and shows an Amish trickster vindicated in a conversation with his own minister:

*The Amishman had flown to Israel. One Sunday morning he and his wife were asked to sit in front of the congregation. They were subjected to "counsel." The minister asked if it was true that they had flown to Israel—[flying in an airplane] is against the rules. "No," the Amishman said. He did not fly the plane. The pilot did. He was absolved of guilt.

Amish Values in Stories

Beyond the peculiar rules of conduct, two stories communicate some of the deeper values found in Amish culture. On the surface, the first one makes fun of the Amish work ethic, although it also implies awe in regard to their commitment to hard work. The second one, told by a young Mennonite man, affirms the redemptive effect of Amish pacifism and nonviolence:

*It was reported that during World War II the government, which was rationing gasoline and shoes, wanted to put the Amish on an eight-hour day. They replied, "That's interesting. But what would we do after dinner?"

*I've heard a story for a long time about a group of boys, probably from the Mennonite church, who wanted to play a trick on an Amishman. And so they took his buggy apart on Halloween night and reassembled it on the roof of his barn. And the Amishman woke up in the middle of the night and saw all this going on. And so he told his wife to get up and prepare a big meal. About daybreak these guys were coming off the roof of the barn and he was down there waiting on them. And he invited them in for breakfast, since they had been working so hard. And they went in and had this big breakfast and they felt so bad they went back out and disassembled it.

The student who told me this story told me he read it in Coals of Fire, a Mennonite inspirational book of stories by Elizabeth Bauman (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1954).

Not really. But in Chapter 8, "The Mystery of the Thatch,” he might have read a European Mennonite variant on which it is based. Bauman tells the story of “Preacher Peter” in the Emmental of Switzerland who, with his wife, woke up one night to the sound of men removing the thatch from the roof of their house. Peter asked his wife to prepare a meal, to which he invited the thieves. Instead of eating, they replaced the thatch and left.

Although Bauman says that “the chief incidents in each story are true,” (v) she actually borrowed the story from John Horsch’s book, The Principles of Nonresistance as Held by the Mennonites (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1939), and Horsch’s telling of it is based, in turn, on a variant found in J. Ellenberger’s Bilder aus dem Pilgerleben: Gesammelt in der Mennoniten-Gemeinde, 3 vols (Frankfurt A.M., 1880). Although the Library of Congress regards Ellenberger’s book as “fiction,” the thatch/buggy story is actually a legend (see Chapters 8-10), or a story believed to be true, that becomes altered according to the place and time of its telling. In this case, the Swiss preacher and his house become the Indiana Amishman and his buggy. In all cases, this humble story helps the Anabaptist community preserve one of its most cherished values, as embodied by the note Bauman attaches to her chapter: “Do good to them that hate you.” (Mt. 5:44)

In the contemporary variant, the Mennonite community revises one of its old stories into a story about the Amish in order to preserve traditional Mennonite values. Attributing to the Amish what was once Mennonite might reflect Mennonites’ implicit awareness of the slippage of traditional values in Mennonite communities but their better preservation in Amish culture.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.