Monday, July 19, 2010

What Is It Like To Be Pennsylvania Dutch?

In my previous post I expressed the view that the key question education should try to answer is, "What is it like to be you?" Now, as a Pennsylvania Dutchwoman, I am going to try to answer it. And my answer is, "It's okay, when you let us alone--or better yet, treat us with the respect we deserve. It's not okay, though, when you try to forget our existence--as seems to me to be happening more and more. And it is not okay when you peddle misunderstandings about us, and sell them to tourists as 'quaint'."
The result? We are often spoken to as if we were sauerkraut-eating, intellectually slow backwoods types who "talk funny." It happens that I love sauerkraut and various other staples of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, and New Year's just wouldn't be right without the traditional pork and sauerkraut. No other part of the description given above applies to me, although it would be okay if it did.
Who are we, anyway? We are descendants of mostly Germanic people, a lot of whom left the Rhineland and South German areas to escape religious persecution. This was in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, around the time of William Penn and his sons. Having been farmers for the most part, and having little other education, we became farmers here, where our beautifully cared for and productive farms became our trademark--this was back in the day when it was possible to farm land for profit, rather than having to sell the farm for taxes.
Because we stuck together, we evolved a Germanic dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch. Like other means of Germanic verbal expression, it falls on the ear a bit like the sound of a sledgehammer--just my opinion. At any rate it is ours.
We were NEVER exclusively, or even chiefly, Plain People--the Amish or the Mennonites. Most of us were like the average American in the way we dressed. Our religions were, for the most part, pretty Mainstream Protestant--Lutheran, Evangelical, German Reformed.
At the time of my childhood, there were Dutch radio programs and Dutch newspaper columns. Dutch food could be found everywhere. We were at home in our little universe.
(And, by the way, when I use "Dutch" in this context, I DO mean "Pennsylvania Dutch." That was what we called ourselves. Only fairly recently are outside scholars wanting to correct this, and insisting that we call ourselves German. Of course we know that we are Germans in the larger sense. But we are Pennsylvania Dutch first of all.)
Today Pennsylvania Dutch is heard almost nowhere, certainly not on the radio. I can't think of a restaurant that serves Pennsylvania Dutch food. Our beautiful farmlands have been turned into malls and housing developments that an acquaintance of mine refers to as "mausoleums for the living."
Even one of our churches seems to have forgotten us. I have heard no acknowledgement in years that the old German Reformed Church sacrificed itself to become part of the United Church of Christ.
And that is what it is like to be Pennsylvania Dutch today. Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, we seem to get no respect.

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