Pennsylvania Dutch Maintain Traditional Culture Vibrant Modern Life



Within a one-hour drive of Philadelphia’s dense urbanism, the Pennsylvania Dutch maintain a vibrant, traditional life and culture, and manage to work and do business in the modern economy. The Amish communities are traditional religious fellowships, a mix of religious affiliations including Anabaptists and Mennonites, with extensive variation by community and 241,000 members spread across more than 20 states. In general they orient their lives towards the religious and secular practices of the Ordnung or Old Order, which helps preserve the religious practices of their tight-knit communities, and maintains an elastic but conservative relationship towards technology.

The Pennsylvania Humanities Council runs the Common Wealth Speakers series which brings performers in the arts, museum educators, folk artists and scholars to community groups. Keith Brintzenhoff, a schoolteacher and player of harmonica, guitar and banjo, demonstrates traditional Pennsylvania Dutch music with the autoharp, to which Central European zither tunes have been adapted. Brintzenhoff also teaches Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, that variant of German imported and preserved by immigrants and descendants, to children and adults. In his interactive performances he teaches traditional Pennsylvania Dutch tunes while participants learn to hoedown and to jig.

A group of settlers led by Francis Daniel Pastorius, were the first German immigrants to Pennsylvania, settling in northwest Philadelphia in 1683, in what became the Borough of Germantown. Early groups of settlers came through the late 18th century and coalesced to form the Pennsylvania Dutch. Many of the immigrants came from southwestern Germany, while others were Alsatians, Swiss, and French Protestants.

The Pennsylvania Dutch maintain elements of that vibrant traditional culture in modern life with their mastery of English, Standard German, which they call Hochdeitsch, and their historic dialect which they call Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch. They read scripture and sing in Hochdeitsch. In different communities in Pennsylvania, groups may establish the terms of daily life, for example in clothing, the width of a hat-brim, the color of buggies and regarding other larger issues of working around modern life in Pennsylvania. Communities extend through Southeastern and South Central Pennsylvania in an arc from Bethlehem and Allentown, through Reading, Lebanon, Lancaster to York and Chambersburg. Amish communities range across Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, with large groups in Northern Ohio and Indiana.

Since a ruling in 1961 by the IRS, the fact that the Amish do not accept Social Security benefits, and further have a religious objection to insurance, has meant they do not pay FICA taxes. Children follow the traditions of their parents or immediate family until they are teenagers. They then have the option to go out into the modern life, a rumspringa (literally: jumping around) into the world and compare it to Amish life.

The TLC reality show Breaking Amish documents the rumspringa. This season moves to Los Angeles, while in the first season the show followed five young adult adults, four Amish and one Mennonite, and their adaptation to New York City. In the city they face the decision to return to their communities, or to join the larger world, which may mean ostracism from their family, friends and traditional community. For the Pennsylvania Dutch maintaining traditional culture stands close to the attractions of modern life.

By Lawrence Shapiro

Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center
Speaking Amish

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