Rumspringa To Be or Not to Be Amish

Tom Shachtman

North Point Press



Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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Rumspringa is Tom Shachtman's celebrated look at a little-known Amish coming-of-age ritual, the rumspringa—the period of "running around" that begins for their youth at age sixteen. During this time, Amish youth are allowed to live outside the bounds of their faith, experimenting with alcohol, premarital sex, revealing clothes, telephones, drugs, and wild parties. By allowing such broad freedoms, their parents hope they will learn enough to help them make the most important decision of their lives—whether to be baptized as Christians, join the church, and forever give up worldly ways, or to remain in the world.

In this searching book, Shachtman draws on his skills as a documentarian to capture young people on the cusp of a fateful decision, and to give us "one of the most absorbing books ever written about the Plain People" (Publishers Weekly).


Praise for Rumspringa

"Never sensationalizing, Shachtman lets the teenagers themselves articulate the struggle to choose between a tradition bound life and the myriad temptations of 'the real world.'"—Adriana Leshko, The Washington Post

"Mr. Shachtman's wonderfully rich portrait and history of the Amish as a people and a faith helps to show why one of the strictest religious communities in America is better at holding a flock than some of the most liberal."—Donna Freitas, The Wall Street Journal

"Shachtman has conducted extensive research and interviews to give us entree to the world of Amish adolescents and culture . . . Many of the individual teen narratives share a common structure: excitement for the new freedom, conflict with family as they move deeper into partying and outside culture, followed by reconciliation and return to the church. But the portraits themselves are finely drawn and reveal the individuals in the community. Shachtman takes his subject and his readers seriously. His study is scholarly but never academic. Anyone interested in U.S. religion or youth culture will enjoy this enlightening and insightful book."—Martin Schmutterer, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"[Tom Shachtman's] description of the phenomenon is excellent, using the sort of documentary technique mastered by Tony Parker in Bird, Kansas, Lighthouse and Soldier, Soldier—letting the burden of the story be carried by the characters' own words."—Roger K. Miller, The Washington Times

"The author uses the rumspringa experience to provide a rare look inside a closed society . . . The strength of Shachtman's book is the candor he summons from his subjects and his sketch-artist description of a strange place and its people . . . I found myself fascinated with the clash of cultures."—Chicago Sun-Times

"Fascinating . . . Shachtman is like a maestro, masterfully conducting an orchestra of history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and journalism together in a harmonious and evocative symphony of all things Amish. He follows the lives of numerous young Amish in the midst of the tumultuous 'Rumspringa' years."—Richard Horan, The Christian Science Monitor

"[An] absorbing study of Amish youth . . . Shachtman's interviews (conducted among the Amish of Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio) form the backbone of the narrative and are the strongest, liveliest aspects of the book . . . The author's reporting is so scrupulous and open-minded that the mainstream reader can almost appreciate the punitive nature of the Amish practice of shunning, where, to 'keep the church pure,' the community turns its collective back on a member who has broken rules, which include everything from disobeying biblical law to using too much electricity to run farm equipment."—Karen Karbo, Newsday

"Rumspringa is most powerful when the ideas and beliefs of the Amish coalesce into living, breathing—and oftentimes sympathetic—young people caught in the throes of torrential self-examination . . . Shachtman is particularly sensitive to the shunning and its threat, and expertly uses the many feelings it evokes—from terror to respect—as the final ingredients in this engaging, bittersweet story."—Patrick Somerville, Time Out Chicago

"Fascinating . . . a very thoughtful and fair-minded exploration of [Amish] society."—Debra Hamel, The Midwest Book Review

"If there are two groups that are difficult for an outsider to understand, it's surely Amish and adolescents—but Shachtman's book penetrates their world and provides a wealth of fascinating information. Oh, and it's really fun to read, too."—Mark Oppenheimer, author of Thirteen and a Day

"This in-depth, generally fascinating account presents the hardships and rewards of that lifestyle, focusing on young Amish who must make a choice about it . . . a riveting and instructive portrait."—Kirkus Reviews

"Rumspringa is a Pennsylvania Dutch term roughly translatable as 'running around.' In an Amish context, it denotes a period during adolescence, beginning at 16, when Amish youths are allowed to be on their own, usually for the first time, and experiment with alcohol, sex, and drugs. Rumspringa ends when a youth agrees to be baptized into the church. Shachtman interviewed more than 400 Amish youth and their parents during a six-year period, out of which came Lucy Walker's 2002 documentary film Devil's Playground. He then conducted more interviews and more follow-up in 2002-04. More than 80 percent of Amish join the church after rumspringa gives them their first experience of independence. Shachtman sheds considerable light on what for many others is a mysterious subculture, providing what is not only absorbing reading but also touching portraits of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. Besides many case studies, he discusses Amish education, faith and doctrine, the practice of 'shunning,' and the role Amish women play in the household."—Booklist

"Writer, novelist, and documentarian Shachtman has created a fascinating and near-unprecedented glimpse into the inner lives of Amish society. The Amish, descendants of a German separatist sect long settled in this country, live apart from mainstream culture in almost every way, with the curious exception that, for a brief period in their adolescence, Amish youth are permitted a spell of license and experimentation before they decide to become full Amish adults. This work, based in part on research done for the related documentary, Devil's Playground, sensitively addresses the unique position of the Amish and the challenges they face. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"A teenage Amish girl sits in her buggy, one hand dangling a cigarette while the other holds a cellphone in which she is loudly chatting away. This girl, like many Amish teens 16 and older, is in a period called rumspringa, when the strict rules of community life are temporarily lifted while an adolescent chooses whether to be baptized into the church and abide fully by its laws. Shachtman, a documentarian who began studying this phenomenon for the film The Devil's Playground, is a sensitive and nimble chronicler of Amish teens, devoting ample space to allowing them to tell their stories in their own words. And their stories are fascinating, from the wild ones who engage in weekend-long parties, complete with hard drugs and sexual promiscuity, to the more sedate and pious teens who prefer to engage in careful courtship rituals under the bemused eyes of adult Amish chaperones. Shachtman's tone is by turns admiring—of the work ethic, strong families and religious faith that undergird Amish life—and critical, especially of the sect's treatment of women and its suspicion of education beyond the eighth grade. Throughout, Shachtman uses the Amish rumspringa experience as a foil for understanding American adolescence and identity formation in general, and also contextualizes rumspringa throughout the rapidly growing and changing Amish world. This is not only one of the most absorbing books ever written about the Plain People but a perceptive snapshot of the larger culture in which they live and move."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"Going Away"

In the gathering dusk of a warm, humid summer Friday evening in northern Indiana, small groups of Amish-born girls between the ages of sixteen and nineteen walk along straight country lanes that border flat fields...

Read the full excerpt


  • Tom Shachtman

  • Tom Shachtman is an award-winning documentarian and the author of many books, including Skyscraper Dreams, Around the Block, and The Day America Crashed.

  • Tom Shachtman J. Doster