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

  • From the Publisher
May 13, 2013

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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