Hasidic Jews and the Amish

Hasidic Jews and the Amish

A reader asked: Why do the Amish and Hasidic Jews dress and live in a similar manner to one another?

Answer:

I gave a tour of Hasidic Williamsburg to a group of Mennonites, which are similar to Amish but maybe in some ways less insular. I think. That’s how they explained it to me.

Notice me in the jacket without a pretty hand sewn dress! I look so bad. So much like a shiksa, a bad Jewish girl. But wait. They are not even all Jewish!

The similarities between Hasidim and the Amish are striking. Both groups are incredibly insular in their way of thinking and have a world view that sees change, assimilation, integration as the destruction of their people. The women also behaved a lot like my childhood friends. Everyone was very careful to say the right and proper thing. Dare I say… repressed?

The one point in the tour that everyone broke into laughter was when I asked what kind of media they are allowed to watch, and then added on an impulse that came from my experience with Hasidim: “But don’t say anything that will get you in trouble!” and they all cracked up. They knew exactly what I meant. Whatever media you are watching that is verbotten, don’t mention that—everyone here can hear! The laugh was so knowing, so familiar.

But there were big differences too. The Hasidim sounded positively metropolitan next to our group and — all took pictures of us. One Hasidic woman came over and said “Good for you, you come here. We go to you in Amishtown, you should come back and enjoy the sites back!” Her confidence was wonderful Another difference: the Hasidic men are also a lot less timid.

What I realized is that both these groups believe in holding on to their traditions despite the changing tides around them. And when you try to preserve a way of life while you’re in the very enticing America with all its flashy colors and addictive ways, then you develop many similar methods: a unique language, dress and a rejection of popular entertainment. Both these groups have done it largely successfully.

2 Comments
  • Zeno Lee
    Posted at 09:17h, 02 May Reply

    I went to Amish country in Lancaster a few years back and yes there are stark differences between Amish and Mennonites. The Amish eschew technology. They don’t use electricity nor telephones. They don’t use automobiles either and use horses and buggies. Because you would never be able to stay at an Amish person’s place because they are more “devout” and more insular, we stayed at an AirBnB whose host is Mennonite. There was no WiFi but there was electricity and they were farmers that used farming equipment with motors, compared to the Amish who did everything by hand, such as using scythes to reap tobacco leaves. We went to the Amish library center and the first book I noticed on the shelf there was a FAQ where the first question was on the differences between Mennonites and Amish. The author said harshly, “This question is driven by ignorance, or by malice.” I understood then that for some Amish, even though Mennonites have the same roots as they, might take offense at being associated with each other. Across each household lies in a spectrum of how closely they follow the rules. We booked to eat at an Amish dinner host who allowed her daughter selling paintings in an adjacent barn to use WiFi (for credit card processing). This would not be in a stricter household. In general, they seem to be struggling with adapting to modernity. As the Amish are dependent on agriculture and carpentry, I was told that they are struggling as it has become more expensive to own land in Pennsylvania and they cannot compete with produce being sold from West Virginia. Anyway, Lancaster is not too far away and I would highly recommend a visit!

    • Frieda Vizel
      Posted at 09:55h, 02 May Reply

      We went to the Amish library center and the first book I noticed on the shelf there was a FAQ where the first question was on the differences between Mennonites and Amish. The author said harshly, “This question is driven by ignorance, or by malice.”

      See – this is the kind of tribalism that resonates and seems much more complex and real than the superficial stories we read about the Amish.

      My initial guess would be the Amish would struggle more to adapt than Hasidim because Hasidim take technology and change it for their own use, but there are so many variables among the Amish that I don’t know. This is why I approach learning about the Amish with so much cynicism (although I am *fascinated* by subcultures, as I’m sure you noticed) Because it’s so hard to get to these nitty gritty variables.

      To be honest… I don’t know how to say this without sounding dismissive or condescending… (I don’t think it is!) I don’t trust many telling about Amish even from Amish and ex-Amish because I see in my own experience, that many Hasidim and ex-Hasidim tell a story highly influenced by what outsiders want to hear or by what the teller wants outsiders to hear. For instance with Hasidim, many will insist that they are now social distancing hell over high water, but if you visit their neighborhoods you can see with your own eyes that things are not so simple. (Personally I say – enough with keeping young children in the houses, it’s cruel.) But the point is, when an Amish person repeats the pop culture lines, or seems to say “we all find joy in our own way” I’m like — eh, be specific or I have a hard time buying any of it.

      Which is why something like the intra attitude between the Amish and Mennonites is so different.

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