Do as the Amish Do

Opinion

By Hasdai Westbrook

Published September 29, 2010, issue of October 08, 2010.
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The trouble with temptation is that it’s so damn tempting. This, it seems, is a problem when it comes to keeping Jews in the fold. But perhaps instead of seeking to steep young Jews exclusively in tradition, we should embrace the horrors of gentile ways.

Insane? Maybe not.

We need only look to another ethno-religious group struggling against assimilation and the enticements of the modern world: the Amish. Generally perceived as the ultimate practitioners of stern denial, the Amish have developed a brilliant mechanism for communal continuity, one that runs entirely on sin. At 16, the Amish youth, previously starved of electricity, unwholesome thoughts and shoddy cabinets, is sent out on “rumspringa” or “run around” — an indefinite jaunt in the wilderness of modern-day decadence where Amish teenagers are free to indulge themselves as they wish, returning if and when they choose. Like a vision quest, but with booze and strippers. On their rumspringa, the Amish not only run around, but often sleep around, get fall-down drunk and sometimes even shoot up.

Some rumspring for years before returning to their homes and beards. But return they do, in numbers that would make Jewish mothers and apocalypse-thirsty evangelicals faint. Over 90 percent of rumsprung Amish youth choose to live their lives as Amish adults. Glutted with all that is forbidden, they return in droves to the strict old ways.

So why not a rumspringa for the Jews? Why not scold our children against the lure of life beyond the shtetl and then let them have at it? Let them lounge in jacuzzis running full blast on Saturdays, filled with shrimp cocktail and jiggling shiksas or sheygetzes, snorting lines of bacon. Let them worship idols, bellow the tetragrammaton and rip up their bar mitzvah pledges with abandon. Better yet, subsidize this waywardness rather than pushing outreach programs based on worthy appeals to Jewish identity. Instead of JDate, GoyDate.

When the dust settles, surely our retention rates would swell. Granted, any such innovation would require the suspension of guilt — a tall order for our people. But how effective is guilt in this day and age? And what’s guilt without a little sin?

Hasdai Westbrook has been published in The Nation, The Washington Post and Tablet.


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