Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism

Rutgers University Press  2012


In the past few decades, the Orthodox Jewish community has seen an influx of newcomers: ba'alei teshuva (BTs). When they join an Orthodox community, they encounter much more than laws and traditions. They find themselves in the midst of a whole new culture, involving matchmakers, potato kugel, and Yiddish-influenced grammar. Becoming Frum shows how BTs adopt many aspects of Orthodox culture, but sometimes in distinctly "BT" ways. Some take on as much as they can as quickly as they can, going beyond the norms of FFBs (those who are "frum [religious] from birth") as they present themselves along the continuum from Modern Orthodox to Black Hat. Others adapt gradually, maintaining aspects of their pre-Orthodox selves. This yields unique combinations: a black hat worn with trendy sunglasses, gefilte fish prepared with Indian spices, and Hebrew words used with American slang ("mamish keepin' it real"). Becoming Frum offers a scholarly, accessible, and entertaining look at the linguistic and cultural process of "becoming."

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Sarah Bunin Benor

Becoming a Scholar of Orthodox Language and Culture

by Sarah Bunin Benor

It was my junior year at Columbia. I was taking a class on Romance Languages, and one of the readings mentioned several Jewish languages. Ladino I had heard of, but Judeo-Portuguese? Judeo-Italian? I was amazed. I closed the book and said to myself, “This is what I want to do with my life—study Jewish languages.”

Three years later I found myself in a PhD program in linguistics working on a paper about what I see as a new Jewish language or dialect: Orthodox Jewish English. Like other Jewish languages, this one “Judaifies” a non-Jewish language with hundreds of Hebrew and Aramaic words and other distinctive features—in this case, Yiddish words and grammatical influences (like “staying by us” and “he told over a story”), sing-song intonation, and distinc­tive pronunciations. I heard sentences like, “We do all that shtick (routines) to be mesameach (entertain) the chossen (groom) and kallah (bride)” and “If they have a different sort of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), so they might not daven (pray) at the same shul (synagogue).”

In the process of recording language in a Chabad community, I noticed a related phenomenon: ba’alei teshuva (BTs)—adults who had become frum, or Orthodox—integrating into frum communities. In addition to the many laws of traditional Judaism, they found themselves in the midst of a whole new culture, involving matchmakers, homemade gefilte fish, and Orthodox Jewish English. I decided my dissertation would focus on them: To what extent do they adopt frum language and culture? What is their learning process?

I found that BTs do adopt many aspects of Orthodox language and culture, but sometimes in distinctly “BT” ways. Some take on as much as they can as quickly as they can, often going beyond the norms of those who grew up frum. Others adapt more gradually, maintaining aspects of their pre-Orthodox identities. This yields unique combinations: a black hat worn with trendy sunglasses, Eastern European foods prepared with Indian spices, and Hebrew words used in conjunction with American slang (like “mamish [really] keepin’ it real”). By taking on frum cultural practices in these ways, newcomers are able to integrate into their new community while indicating their in-between status, highlighting their identity not only as Orthodox Jews but also as BTs.

When I wrote my dissertation, the audience I had in mind was linguists, anthropologists, and Jewish studies scholars. I saw my work as speaking to various theoretical questions and academic discourses. But as I was reframing the dissertation to submit for publication, I realized it had relevance for a broader audience. Whenever people take on signifi­cant new roles or join new communities, they must learn the appropri­ate language and culture. I have observed this process of socialization among friends and relatives in professional training programs, especially in academics, law, medicine, and Jewish nonprofit management. Throughout the two to ten years of training we go through to become professionals in our fields (and well into our careers), we learn distinc­tive ways of speaking, and the process we go through resembles that of BTs.

Just as BTs sometimes use new words in unusual contexts (one woman told her non-Jewish tailor to take just one inch off of her borrowed wedding dress “so it will be OK for another kallah- another bride”), new professionals do too. For example, new doctors might re­place the term “heart attack” in their mind with “myocardial infarction” or “MI,” and, when speaking to a patient or friend, they might acciden­tally use the new term. I also noticed issues of authority among both BTs and professional trainees. When do we feel we have the authority to take part in certain practices? While some social science graduate students feel uncomfortable using words like “problematize” and “reification,” others go overboard and use such terms even when a veteran professor would not.

I also noticed parallels between the socialization of BTs and my own transition to motherhood. After I gave birth to my first child (while I was working on my dissertation), I felt strange using phrases like “get a good latch” (in breastfeeding) and “put the baby down” (for a nap). Based on interactions with more experienced parents, however, I learned that this language of parenthood was common and expected in my community. At first I used these terms in a marked way, sometimes with air quotes, like the BTs I observed using Hebrew and Yiddish words they had just learned. Eventually I grew to feel comfortable with the language of parenting, and, like veteran BTs, I now find myself socializing friends as they learn the language of parenthood.

Another group I thought about while writing my book is converts to non-Orthodox Judaism and Jews who become more heavily engaged in non-Orthodox synagogues. Like BTs, they often feel infantilized by their poor knowledge of Hebrew and liturgical practices, and they find themselves asking friends about Yiddish words they hear. Since the publication of Becoming Frum, I have heard from several converts and religious intensifiers (Orthodox and not) about how applicable they found my book—how it describes their own experiences in ways they had not quite thought of before.

I know that many graduate students and early-career professors tire of their dissertation topics. Strangely, that never happened to me. Over a decade after I started my research—and a year after my book was published—I still enjoy thinking and writing about the language and culture of newly Orthodox Jews and how my findings apply to other instances of “becoming.” And almost two decades after my career epiphany in the library, I still enjoy thinking and writing about Jewish languages. I am blessed to have found a topic I love.

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