Local book author recounts her 10 years with Amish women

by Len Lear
Posted 2/23/23

What are the lives of Amish women really like? Over the course of a decade, author Judy Stavisky spent hundreds of hours getting to know the women of Lancaster County's reclusive Amish community to elicit an answer to this question.

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Local book author recounts her 10 years with Amish women


What are the lives of Amish women really like? Over the course of a decade, author Judy Stavisky, who has lived in Chestnut Hill, then Wyndmoor, then Wyncote, over the last 39 years, spent hundreds of hours getting to know the women of Lancaster County's reclusive Amish community to elicit an answer to this question. 

She joined mothers and grandmothers, unmarried women and teenagers on their shopping excursions for household items, fabric and groceries. They drove many miles between farms and fields and shared many hundreds of hours of conversation about mundane topics — laughing together about sneaking healthy entrees into their family’s evening meals, sharing concerns about their children and trading family remedies for persistent coughs. As relationships evolved into lifelong friendships, Stavisky, who earned a master’s degree in education from Chestnut Hill College in 1991 grew to understand how Amish women bind their families and communities together.

Stavisky, who also has a master’s degree from Yale Medical School in public health and currently co-teaches public health program development at Arcadia University in Glenside for graduating seniors, has written a fascinating book about her findings. Published late in 2022, Stavisky’s book about the author’s decade of conversations with Amish women is called, “In Plain View: The Daily Lives of Amish Women.” The book, released by Herald Press, a Christian publishing house in Missouri, debunks some of the stereotypical notions many of us have as a result of the media's portrayal of Amish women.

For example, we have all been told that the Amish shun electricity. If so, how did Stavisky communicate with them? “I called them on the telephone!”she replied. “While it is rare for the Amish to install a phone within their homes, the families I met have old-fashioned landlines with voice mail housed in a phone shanty, a little wooden phone booth, typically yards away from their house. And we write letters. My handwriting is close to illegible, but my Amish friends prefer handwritten letters. 'There is more feeling in a handwritten letter,' my Amish friends report.”

In the same recent interview with the Local, Stavisky said, “While the Amish culture appears to be restrictive and confining by modern standards, there is an enviable community spirit that most people long for, a sense of connection with others who stand at the ready to help. I know a woman who seriously injured herself falling through a hole in the upper floor of a barn. Within hours, women from the community provided meals, helped with laundry (remember, they use wringer washers) and cared for her children without being asked during a long hospital stay. The men came with tool kits and repaired the hole, took care of the horses and the farm while the injured women’s husband was tending to his wife in the hospital.”

Steven M. Nolt, co-author of “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy,” has written about “In Plain View.”  He says “Judy Stavisky has a remarkable eye for detail and a keen sense of what, amid all the activity, is truly significant. Some aspects of Amish life may be in plain view, but you’ll see them more clearly after reading this book.”  

Stavisky grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. Her father, Sam Stavisky, was a Washington Post combat correspondent during WWII. He collected his dispatches and wrote the book, “Marine Combat Correspondent, WWII,” when he was 85. “He was forced to learn how to use a computer first,” Judy said. “The book sold 35,000 copies. Sam always encouraged me to write, too.”

Stavisky's first job out of public health graduate school took her to Allentown. She was there only a few months when she was offered a position as health educator at Pennsylvania Hospital, which is how she wound up in the Philadelphia area. She has also worked with two local nonprofits, Friends of the Children and The Welcoming Center, which work to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees.

But how did Stavisky, who co-authored a previous book, “Do It Better! How the Kids of St. Francis de Sales Exceeded Everyone’s Expectations,” become interested in writing a book about the Amish? “My husband, Alan Schiff, and I enjoy scouting out bicycle routes in Lancaster County,” she replied. “When weekend weather and time permit, Alan and I head for the closest Amish settlement outside of Morgantown. We then meander on our bicycles for hours. A cyclist can inconspicuously catch Amish mothers and daughters meticulously clipping laundry to lengthy clotheslines, fathers and sons maneuvering mule and horse teams through dusty fields, and women and children carefully tending vegetable plots and flower gardens.”

So, Judy telephoned a well-known scholar of the Amish, Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College. When she learned that Amtrak travels directly to Elizabethtown from the 30th Street Train Station, she commuted weekly to take his evening class on the Amish, and she was hooked!  

“Dr. Kraybill has been a trusted and well-respected Amish scholar for over 40 years, both in the academic world and within the Amish community,” said Stavisky. “So Dr. Kraybill sent personal letters of introduction to 10 families, informing them that I would be calling to set up shopping trips. Each family agreed to accompany me for a day-long shopping trip in exchange for me gently asking questions about their purchases and their lives.”

For more information on how to obtain “In Plain View” online, visit heraldpress.com or https://bit.ly/3xq1cCN. The book is also available at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in West Mt. Airy. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com