Ephrata

I was prevailed upon to leave my studies (I’m sick of them but enjoying it) and become acquainted with the Kook’s Kompound in Ephrata. Ephrata—a name that conjures up religious fringe views, doesn’t it? There in the first half of the XVIII century flourished a community of celibates, which soon passed into the hands of the more procreative associates. Eventually, however, it dwindled so far that the government bought it and now runs it as a monument or a warning.

An able enough chap gave us a tour, explaining the setup and customs and fielding questions quite aptly. I gather he was some kind of historian of Anabaptists and, unlike most tour guides at historical places I’ve known, conversant with some of the theological underpinnings of what happened. Unlike religious historians, quite able to tell us what brick meant in the dwellings of the XVIII century American sticks (that’s the kind of detail I admire: know thy stuff; don’t be a specialist in the bad sense).

Pennsylvania, of course, is a good place to trace back some of the more radical flourishings the death of reformed orthodoxy at the beginning of the Modern Age provided the world with. Europe could not stomach all of it, but the American wilderness welcomed, nurtured, and tamed–even as it was tamed. The chap who started Ephrata was a dissenter, apparently more radical than what the Brethren in Germany were eager to welcome. Like many in that age, he had something of an eschatological obsession, also a contemplative turn, good healthy contempt of the body (for all that he was German). He was convinced the Second Coming was at hand (as we all in some way are) in the more perfervid way: it was time to do things in order to be the first to notice when it was actually taking place.

So he comes to PA, instead of taking up baking again he weaves in Germantown, wanders further into the wild, is dunked by Anabaptists, and at last decides the eremitical is his calling. Like St. Anthony of old, however, people come to him. So he sets up a celibate community, they eat vegetables, and because God doesn’t eat, eat as little as possible as seldom as possible. Because God doesn’t sleep, they get on with as little of that as possible. They would sleep three hours, rise at midnight for a two hour service during which the Second Coming was eagerly expected, then slept for another three hours before rising for a round of prayer and work, a meal at six, a time of crafts, and so on.

They made calligraphic posters with wise sayings in German; they ran a very profitable printing press out there; they sang copiously, having hymns of up to 100 verses, apparently; and they worshipped on Saturday, at length. There was a certain primitivism going on there, out in the wilderness. You know, when you think of some of the early fathers—Clement, Origen, spring to mind, and others will too—there is a certain parallel. Not in that they’re kooks, but that they have this rigor, this devotion to work and study, a philosophically vegetarian diet (the chief Kook of Ephrata thought if you ate animals you became like them, which is a rather naïve view of human digestion still enshrined in the saying people for some reason refuse to stop repeating). And they died out, the celibates, and the married couples who were adherents took over, becoming 7th Day German Baptists, dwindling through the XIX century until they ran clean out of anything in 1930.

The tour begins with a video with notoriously fake beards, after which much of the information in the video is repeated by the guide—more interestingly and without bad acting, fake beards, or unbelievably inauthentic baptism reenactments. Piety, one muses during the video, is very hard to pretend to have. You can go into the rooms, see the setup, the boards that were their beds, the pine block for pillows, the utensils and cabinets, candle-making facilities, etc. Useful to clap eyes on those things, to take in the spaces and distances, look through the wavy panes of glass on the snow outside. These historical scenes are one of the nice things of living on the East Coast, I reckon.

There is a very good Colombian restaurant in Ephrata: well run, fresh juices (lulo available, guanabana), long times to cook, good lomo salteado, authentic salads, fresh yucca, nice rice, good empanadas, if a bit inauthentically full of meat or chicken only, and disconcertingly overstuffed tamales. The music is the same wearisome music, but there is nothing more authentic, as is the surprise of a limited menu—rather than some jumped-up endless variety of fake nonsense. Things come out gradually, which speaks well of their kitchen, and you are in Colombia when a waiter unschooled in the ridiculous formality he so badly, and yet so authentically affects, unnecessarily exchanges your normal knife for a steak knife. The aji was some kind of Valentina’s sauce with a can of chilies mixed in, which in its own perverse way is an authentic Colombian approach to the problem, if not something you would often run across in the country itself. The lomo salteado was very good, for me. Worth a trip out to the Kook’s Kompound if only you stop at Aromas del Sur for some paisa cooking.

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