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:
- Ayala Fader’s Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn
- Dara Horn’s The World to Come
- Shaul Kelner’s Tours that Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism
- Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States
- Jeffrey Shandler’s Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture
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 executive director 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.