Over the years the Amish community has been a mystery some believe is worth uncovering. TLC’s “Breaking Amish” attempts to do just that, and shed light on this secretive community. The reality series “Breaking Amish,” follows four Amish men and women and one Mennonite woman as they go give life a try — in the Big Apple! TLC has ordered nine one-hour episodes.
Think of it as an Amish version of MTV’s The Real World.
To learn what the transition is actually like, TIME talked to one young man who broke Amish for good and moved to the city.
In one clip, the Amish and Mennonite youths are seen marveling at the skyscrapers, buying clothing made in underdeveloped countries, interacting with pedestrians and shacking up in an expensive hotel paid for by, well, probably not them.
TV critics — who had been through this with UPN’s “Amish in the City,”National Geographic Channel’s “Amish: Out of Order” and so on — were not impressed.
“We wanted to have a real authentic look,” exec producer Shannon Evangelista said as she and Eric Evangelista described how they hired two producers — one Amish and one Mennonite — to recruite their band of 20-somethings to take to New York for the show, which they purport to call a documentary.
“It’s 100 percent accurate,” Eric Evangelista said of the series, which is produced, appropriately, under the Hot Snakes Media banner.
“We have already seen at least one show like this,” said one TV critic. “How can you call it a documentary if you actually change the conditions? You’re taking people who would not go to New York normally and taking them out of their normal environment. . . . How is this different than putting them in a ‘Real World’ house, or ‘Jersey Shore?’ ”
It’s the context that the show’s producers believe that matters, especially given each individual’s history.
Timothy Sauder, 30, a student at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — the oldest Amish community in the U.S. — until he was 14, when his family moved to Plymouth, Ohio. He left his Old Order Mennonite community — and two younger brothers and two younger sisters — because he wanted to go to college and pursue a career in science. And he could not be both an Old Order Mennonite and a college graduate because his community does not support higher education. Many members do not even attend high school. He used to dig televisions out of dumpsters just to learn about the outside world. For five years, he debated whether to leave, traveling around the U.S. and to 22 other countries while he pondered the decision. Finally, in fall 2008, without a high school diploma, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. He transferred to Columbia in 2010 and is expected to graduate in May 2013 with a B.A. in Biology. Post-graduation, he wants to pursue a career in biotechnology and start his own biotech company.
Sauder’s family has come to terms with his new life. His father Linus (a machinist), his mother and his siblings have even visited him in New York City. TIME sat down with Sauder at his apartment, which he shares with three other roommates. He no longer wears suspenders. Instead, he sported a pink striped button-down shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. His room was impeccably neat, complete with a lofted IKEA bed that he built himself — thanks to the carpentry he learned as a Mennonite. His bookshelf was typical for a student — biochemistry tomes and classic literature like Don Quixote and Hamlet — plus more revealing choices like Malcolm Gladwell’sOutliers.
Time asked a couple of questions that might shine some light as to why “Breaking Amish” can or cannot be considered a documentary. One of their asks; What actually happens when Amish and Mennonite people visit New York City? How do they react?
When I show around the [Amish/Mennonite] people from back home, they’re not the type of people who are like “OMG.” They’re not reacting. [Amish/Mennonites] are like, “oh, so this is a city.” It’s very easy to think they would just be floored, but I’ve never seen that reaction. They don’t have preconceived ideas that come from pop culture or media. Once in a while I’ll hear them say things like, “What would it be like to live here?” For them, it’s so far out there. If someone asked you, “How would you like to live on a Moon colony,” you would be like “No, never.” The fact that I’m living here is probably the only thing that would sort of make them think twice.
At last count, I had 76 first cousins, and probably 25 of them have been here to see me. I’ve done the “Welcome to New York” tour many, many times. Standard tours show where John Lennon was shot. Well, first I have to explain who John Lennon was. Their history is better than their pop culture. Ground Zero is universal. Everyone remembers it. It doesn’t matter where you come from. The subway system in general is fascinating for them.
A second question from “Time” that provides further incite about “Breaking Amish’s” documentary quality asks, if there is any misconceptions about Amish or Mennonite people who leave the community?
The biggest issue that I have with a few media depictions is that they exploit the Rumspringa ritual [a period from age 16 to marriage when they can date and leave the Amish community to try out modern world material comforts before committing to the religious lifestyle]. Usually they take the most extreme instances they can find and dramatize them.
Most media depictions tend to portray the family as ostracizing the person. But if you have this imperative to leave, you’re the one who does the isolating. My family never told me not to do what I was going to do, but at the same time, I knew that they sometimes had huge questions and doubts. They never just put their foot down and said no. I could see it in their eyes that they just didn’t understand. They held their breath for a very long time, and they’re still kind of doing that.
I think that as documentary “Breaking Amish” falls short simply because their lives are lived in a controlled environment, however, my opinion is quite mixed because the show might have a grasp of the two cultures movement towards modernity.