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Introduction: The Gordon Factor




My good friend Gordon Yoder always has a new story to tell. Since he knows of my special interest in Mennonite and Amish stories, he takes the initiative in telling me his latest one. Invariably, he begins: "There was this Mennonite woman . . ." or "There was this Amish man . . ."

Sometimes his stories make it into my collection. But, lately, more often they do not because their contents have little or nothing at all to do with recognizably Mennonite or Amish experience. So Gordon has becomes my best critic, since the message he implicitly conveys is that there is little that is ethnically unique in many ethnic stories. One story can be transferred from one ethnic group to another merely by changing a few details and the name of the group.

To coin a term, "The Gordon Factor" in my experience with Mennonite story-telling refers to the fact that one ethnic group borrows stories and jokes from another ethnic group, and a story-teller changes names and details to suit the context of performance.

That is especially true of moron jokes, which can be shaped to fit whatever ethnic group the storyteller wants to make fun of at the moment. Moron jokes easily become Irish jokes, or Polish jokes, or Newfie jokes. In the case of Mennonite and Amish folklore, generic moron jokes first became "Dumb Dutchman" jokes (referring to all speakers of Pennsylvania German) and then evolved into "Mennonite" or "Amish" jokes.

Ethnic jokes often make fun of traits that are typical of most American immigrants. Probably all immigrant groups have been penny-pinching, in order to succeed economically in a new culture. Immigrant groups are also known for freakish use of the English language, or baffling use of their own languages, resulting in the ethnic dialect joke. And immigrants have all been at least momentarily ignorant—hence "dumb"—regarding customs and understandings that mainstream Americans take for granted.

Of course, that pushes the point a bit too far, since each ethnic group does have cultural characteristics that distinguish it from other ethnic groups. Sometimes these distinctives are perceived by outsiders, who then stereotype all members of the ethnic group in that way. Whether or not the stereotypes accurately represent the group is a highly debatable question--but ultimately not the point. The point is that ethnic groups are perceived in stereotypical ways by outsiders, who then tell stories that highlight and reinforce those stereotypes. Folklorists regard such understandings as folk sociology. Since ethnic stereotypes have consequences in real life affairs—sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful—they should not be ignored but, first, understood. Following the work of William Jensen, folklorists regard outsiders' lore about other groups as exoteric lore.

Folklorists regard insiders' perceptions of their own group's nature and experience as esoteric lore. In such lore, one finds a knowledge and relishing of cultural details that may be baffling to an outsider but hilariously funny to insiders. For Mennonites and Amish, those esoteric details sometimes concern rules of conduct (Amish do not fly in airplanes) or peculiar social or religious customs (Mennonites use grape juice in communion) or regulations of costume (Mennonite women sometimes wear a special kind of head-covering). Indeed, it is in the stories that ethnic groups tell about themselves—in their esoteric lore-- that one might expect to find the ethnic story or joke that is truly distinctive to that group. Jews will know the best stories about Jews. Mormons will know the best ones about Mormons. Poles will know the best about Poles. Mennonites, about Mennonites.

MennoFolk3: Puns, Riddles, Tales and Legends fulfills my quest to find truly Mennonite stories--always keeping in mind The Gordon Factor in borrowing and adapting stories told about other ethnic groups.

Secondarily, this is also a book of Amish stories, since if Mennonites tell stories about another ethnic group, that group will most likely be the Old Order Amish. At least, that is true of the Mennonite communities from which I gathered most of the stories in this book. My Mennonite informants were mainly Swiss-Alsatian Mennonites, near whom the Old Order Amish have also tended to settle, since both groups come from the same geographic, linguistic and cultural areas of Europe. Many of the informants' families were themselves originally members of the Old Order Amish, or Conservative Mennonite, or Amish-Mennonite, or Old Order Mennonite churches.

Unfortunately, the book contains virtually no Amish stories told by Old Order Amish people themselves. The Amish stories have come into my collection indirectly, or from print sources originating in the Amish community. To collect and study Amish stories with integrity, I would need to tape-record their narratives as told orally by them in their native dialect of Pennsylvania German. Although I have Amish friends, I do not know Pennsylvania-German and have never felt that such an approach to Amish people would be appropriate.

I do know that in the Amish dialect the word for story has negative meanings, conveying more the sense of lie than of fiction. Of course, that is true in many folk cultures. For instance, I vividly recall tape-recording the Anancy stories of a speaker of Belizean Creole English in the middle of the bush in Belize. While her husband told me his stories, his wife stood in the doorway, laughing and saying out loud, "Liar! Liar!" during his performance. On one level, she was passing a kind of moral judgment, since the family belonged to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which frowned on the old, amoral trickster tales. But on a literary critical level, she was defining the stories being told as fictional folktales, rather than as legends intended to be believed.

The situation is somewhat similar in Amish cultures today. In MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions I cite the Beachy Amish (Amish-Mennonite) minister who said that he would never tell a story that was not true—but then proceeded to tell several stories that he believed to be historical events but that a folklorist would recognize as traditional legends. John Ruth, a Mennonite historian who has a keen understanding of Mennonite and Amish folk cultures, assumes that such moral condemnation of folktales by the Beachy Amish minister can be understood as the result of his people becoming self-consciously evangelical, and consequently less comfortable with their traditional culture, where storytellers are not officially encouraged but are known and honored in informal conversational situations. After all, Old Order Amish culture is inherently an oral traditional—not print- or media-oriented—culture, where informal narratives should thrive.

Informants who used to be Amish have told me that, indeed, informal Amish storytelling is abundant. Often it is very frank, even vulgar, in its contents, and its earthy nature cannot adequately be conveyed by direct translation into English. I noticed those tendencies in stories told me by ex-Amish people who had learned them in Pennsylvania German, and some Amish bluntness does emerge in the stories in Chapter 5 from the writings of William McGrath, a Beachy Amish leader.

So this book presents stories that Mennonites tell—about themselves and their cultural rivals, especially their Old Order Amish neighbors. I gathered most of the narratives in story-telling sessions that I led with Mennonite audiences of men and women. In the 1980s and 90s I often gave programs on Mennonite folk narratives, for adult Sunday School classes or as after-dinner programs, and then invited those in the audience to tell their own Mennonite or Amish stories, while I tape-recorded them. The transcriptions given here have been lightly edited for readability. The more vulgar, bawdy stories were told to me in private, or in small, intimate groups. The original transcripts are available in the archives at Goshen College.

Being a close-knit group, Mennonites sponsor many meetings for worship and study, hold many meetings to conduct church affairs, plan many potlucks for large-group fellowship, enjoy family reunions, and socialize mainly with other Mennonites in informal situations. Informal story-telling abounds in those contexts. People with reputations as good storytellers are admired and sought out, and preachers who use stories in their sermons are the most popular. In Chapter 4 of MennoFolk I documented one urban legend passing through a storytelling network that began at the top of the Mennonite church hierarchy and very quickly spread through grass-roots members of the church.

The stories in this book come mainly from middle-aged and older people. When I presided over a few similar programs with audiences of Mennonite young people, the results were different. The stories I told were met with less response and the young people had many fewer Mennonite stories to tell. At worst, that may be because the more acculturated Mennonite young people have a less clear sense of distinctive Mennonite identity. At best, it may mean that they have not lived long enough as Mennonites to perceive those cultural elements that remain distinctive to their people.

I wish I could include the names of the people who told me the stories, but it was impossible for me to obtain permission from so many people in preparing this book. However, I always give credit to master story-tellers J. C. Wenger and John S. Ruth for the stories I recorded from them. Wenger (1910-95) of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Goshen, Indiana, was the storyteller par excellence for his generation of Mennonites, and John S. Ruth of eastern Pennsylvania has become his counterpart today. Both men are known for having worn the "plain coat" when it was no longer necessary. I take that to mean, in part, that both men wanted to associate themselves with traditional Mennonite culture, which relished both inspirational and humorous stories. Many of the stories from J. C. Wenger come from a tape-recorded interview; the stories by John Ruth come mainly from a conversation with him in Goshen, Indiana, and from his plenary session at the Mennonite Church conference at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1983, which commemorated the 300th anniversary of Mennonite immigration to America.

Mennonite stories have been self-consciously promoted by a few other individuals and venues. Most notably, for many years Katie Funk Wiebe of Tabor, Kansas, wrote a column on Mennonite humor in Festival Quarterly, published from 1974-1996 by Good Enterprises in Intercourse, Pennsylvania. On at least one occasion, she was taken to task in letters to the editor for publishing folk narratives that offended the tastes of readers. But she knew what she was doing, and skillfully defended their role in Mennonite folk culture. Other print sources for Mennonite stories have been the periodicals Mennonot, published from 1993-2003 by Sheri Hostetler and Steve Mullet,and Rhubarb, published since 1999 by the Mennonite Literary Society in Winnipeg, Manitoba (and representing mainly Russian Mennonite culture). Elmer L. Smith published a set of "Amish Stories" in his book Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore (Lebanon, PA, 1960). John R. Mumaw included Mennonite items in his essay on Pennsylvania Dutch folklore in Pennsylvania Folklife (Spring 1960). Rolf Brednich published some Canadian Mennonite stories in Mennonite Folklife and Folklore (Ottawa 1977). Kyle Schlabach's The Cow in Science Hall: A Collection of Goshen College Folklore (Goshen, IN 1994) presents some academic folklore from a Mennonite college. I have given credit to print sources whenever I have used materials from them.

My first two MennoFolk books include some Mennonite narratives, none of which are repeated in MennoFolk3. MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Herald Press 2004) includes chapters on stories and their functions in Mennonite culture; origin stories; inter-Mennonite ethnic slurs; trickster tales; and the Mennonite use of the Reggie Jackson urban legend, along with essays on other kinds of folk traditions. MennoFolk2: A Sampler of Mennonite and Amish Folklore (Herald Press 2005) is not limited to narratives, but does include studies of various kinds of stories: about family history, horse-trading, homesteading, Amish powwow, Mennonite footwashing, college pranks, bedtime tales, courtship and adoption.

As with the two earlier MennoFolk books, here I also present folk materials from the perspective of the academic study of folklore, by using and explaining terminology, citing variants that are earlier and from other traditions, and offering interpretations based on cultural context.

The two intended audiences for MennoFolk3 are insiders to Mennonite culture and outsiders who want to know more about Mennonites and Amish. I fear that Mennonite readers will regard Stories Mennonites Tell as merely a joke book, but I hope they will also appreciate the comments and interpretations that reveal how stories function in their culture.

Outsiders will benefit in the same way, but I hope that the larger contribution of this book is to expand what is known about the folklore of religious groups in the United States. Although studies of Jewish stories and humor abound, the folklore of American Protestants has been understudied and underappreciated. Mormon narratives have been collected and analyzed by William Wilson and Austin and Alta Fife. But where are the studies of folktales told by Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, etc., today? True, the more "bounded" a group is, the more distinctive its culture will be and the more stories its people will tell in defining themselves, especially over against other groups. But, surely, despite their greater accommodation to mainstream culture than is true for Mennonites and Amish, other Protestant groups in the U.S. nurture their own more or less distinctive folk narrative traditions.

During the Counter-Reformation approximately 5000 Anabaptists were tortured, mutilated, drowned and burned to death for their Christian beliefs. The huge book Martyrs' Mirror (1660), which records some of those gruesome deaths, is the fountainhead of distinctive Anabaptist-Mennonite narratives. Its accounts of suffering and martyrdom for Anabaptist principles have haunted and inspired Mennonites and Amish ever since. The folk traditional nature of the Martyrs' Mirror narratives has not been studied, and perhaps can only be studied by someone well versed in the language of the Dutch Renaissance.

Until that happens, MennoFolk3 will represents that ethnic-religious tradition, in the form of modest, mainly humorous, narratives that nevertheless express much of what it has meant in historical and contemporary times to be and feel like a Mennonite.

Acknowledgements

The contents of this book derive almost entirely from oral stories that other people have told me. I regret that I could not acknowledge most of them by name. On the other hand, some might not have wanted their name attached to their story/s in print! I hope they recognize their stories, and I also hope that they will be pleased to see them here. Many thanks to all of the good-humored people who unwittingly helped write this book. The book certainly counters the stereotype that Mennonites lack a sense of humor!

I am especially indebted to Don Swartzentruber, artist from Winona Lake, Indiana, for allowing me to include paintings and drawings from his “Pop-Mennonite” series. I apologize for using them as mere illustrations, which obscures the interpretations that the artist gives to each one on his website http://www.swartzentruber.com/art-mennonite/1-mennonite-art-introduction.htm. Images and interpretations reflect his growing-up experience in the Greenwood Mennonite Church, an Old Order Mennonite congregation in Greenwood, Delaware, as influenced by his fascination with Disney cartooning. As used in MennoFolk3, each image picks up a motif in a chapter or nearby story and takes it to a new, if puzzling and provocative, level of meaning.

In addition, I thank:

  • Ann Hostetler for her cooperation in helping make this book accessible to all via The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, and perhaps even some day, somehow, for on-demand printing. Ann and I are co-editors of the online journal.
  • Christian Stoltzfus, CMW assistant, for prompt, efficient, accurate posting of the text online.
  • The family of Ernest G. Gehman, represented by his daughter Huldah (Mrs. John) Claude of Wilmington, NC, who gave permission for me to use their father’s anecdotes about George Brunk, Sr. in Chapter 8, as originally published in the periodical Sword and Trumpet. Those materials are in the public domain, but I thank Huldah for her interest. Chapter 8 also reproduces an editorial cartoon by Gehman, illustrating that Mennonites were interested in the cartoon form already in the 1930s.
  • Various publishers who read the manuscript and liked it, but found the contents too esoteric for a general reader. I understand. But that is exactly why I made the book—in order to preserve ephemeral artifacts of a Mennonite-Amish culture of a certain era that is rapidly succumbing to mainstream interests and tastes.
  • And to all of my friends and colleagues who have encouraged me, since about 1975, to pursue my interest in the academic study of folklore and folk arts. Folklore has low status in the academy. But I agree with Raymond Williams, a founder of the Cultural Studies movement, who famously declared that “culture is ordinary.”

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.