Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

The JBC is proud to wel­come five new final­ists to the Sami Rohr Prize com­mu­ni­ty. This year’s con­tenders tack­le a wide range of sub­jects, includ­ing accli­mat­ing cul­ture in Ortho­dox Judaism and Hebrew cul­ture in man­date Pales­tine, Jew­ish Amer­i­cans and alco­hol, a detec­tive sto­ry con­cern­ing a thou­sand-year-old Hebrew bible, and a nar­ra­tive about Eli­jah of Vil­na and the mak­ing of Mod­ern Judaism. Equal­ly inter­est­ing are our final­ist them­selves, who we’ve had the plea­sure of inter­view­ing for the Pros­en­Peo­ple blog. 

Today we hear from Sarah Bunin Benor, author of Becom­ing Frum: How New­com­ers Learn the Lan­guage and Cul­ture of Ortho­dox Judaism, which was pub­lished by Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press. If you haven’t had a chance to view her web­site, check it out here for a dis­cus­sion guide and oth­er resources, includ­ing a list of blogs about Ortho­dox cul­ture and lan­guage. Book fair coor­di­na­tors, please note that Sarah is a mem­ber of the JBC Net­work, so if you’re look­ing for an inter­est­ing author to bring in this year, she’s your gal!

Below, Sarah dis­cuss­es her new projects, offers five great book rec­om­men­da­tions, and reveals where and how she first decid­ed to be a writer:

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

In the library. I was study­ing for a col­lege class and was stunned to see ref­er­ences to Judeo-Ital­ian and oth­er Jew­ish lan­guages I had nev­er heard of before. I said to myself, This is what I want to do with my life — study Jew­ish lan­guages.” Actu­al­ly, that’s when I decid­ed to apply to grad­u­ate school in lin­guis­tics. My orig­i­nal career plan, which stemmed back to my days as edi­tor of the Rockville High School Ram­page, had been to pur­sue jour­nal­ism. Luck­i­ly, being a pro­fes­sor involves not only teach­ing and research but also writ­ing for oth­er schol­ars and for the gen­er­al public.

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing non-fiction?

Mak­ing com­pli­cat­ed con­cepts acces­si­ble to a broad audience.

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing non-fiction?

In my research, I’ve found inter­est­ing trends and phe­nom­e­na among Amer­i­can Jews, and my inspi­ra­tion has been a desire to share those dis­cov­er­ies with others.

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

I do my best writ­ing in the morn­ings at my home com­put­er when nobody else is home.

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

Reach­ing a broad and diverse audi­ence with my writ­ing. I love when read­ers con­tact me out of the blue and tell me that an arti­cle or book I wrote inspired them to do a new study or just to think about the world differently.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

For Becom­ing Frum, the audi­ence is any­one with an inter­est in Ortho­dox Jews or in how peo­ple inte­grate into new communities.

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

A few things:

Being Ortho­dox involves an elab­o­rate cul­ture, in addi­tion to beliefs and reli­gious observance.

When peo­ple become part of a new com­mu­ni­ty, they indi­cate their mem­ber­ship (or their in-between sta­tus) through lan­guage, which they learn through inter­ac­tions with peers and com­mu­ni­ty veterans.

Lan­guage is a fas­ci­nat­ing lens through which we can learn about a community.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

Sev­er­al stud­ies about Amer­i­can Jews and lan­guage, includ­ing Black Jews, Hebrew at Jew­ish sum­mer camps, and lin­guis­tic creativity.

What are you read­ing now?

Dara Horn’s A Guide for the Per­plexed.

Five books you love to recommend:

Sarah Bunin Benor is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish stud­ies at Hebrew Union Col­lege – Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion (Los Ange­les cam­pus) and adjunct asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Lin­guis­tics Depart­ment. She received her Ph.D. from Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty in Lin­guis­tics in 2004. She is the author of Becom­ing Frum: How New­com­ers Learn the Lan­guage and Cul­ture of Ortho­dox Judaism (Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012), and she has pub­lished and lec­tured wide­ly about Jew­ish lan­guages, lin­guis­tics, Yid­dish, Amer­i­can Jews, and Ortho­dox Jews. Dr. Benor is found­ing co-edi­tor of the Jour­nal of Jew­ish Lan­guages (Brill) and cre­ator of the Jew­ish Lan­guage Research Web­site and the Jew­ish Eng­lish Lex­i­con. In her spare time, she enjoys fam­i­ly time with her hus­band, Mark, and their three daugh­ters, Aliza, Dalia, and Ariella.

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.