How Jewish do you sound? Learning the lingo as you learn the ropes

I promised a full-length review of Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism by Sarah Bunin Benor (Rutger’s University Press 2012)  a while back, but I (embarrassing to admit!) lost the book before I completed it! (Yes, I feel guilty.)

becoming frum

Becoming Frum, recent winner of the Rohr Prize

Thank G-d, the book re-emerged from the piles on my desk recently, and I finally completed it over the weekend, allowing me to at long-last fulfill my promise to review this book, which recently won the 2013 Sami Rohr Choice Award for Jewish Literature

I first became acquainted with the work of Sarah Bunin Benor when she looked for volunteers to complete an online survey of language use among Jewish Americans several years back. When Becoming Frum came out a year ago, I was even more interested, partly because of my sociolinguistics coursework as part of my graduate-level anthropology program, partly because of my own status as a “BT” (someone who “returned” to Orthodox Jewish observance as an adult).

Becoming Frum draws on Benor’s extensive research among both “black hat” and “modern” Orthodox communities. She focused on how new members of those communities integrate into them from a linguistic standpoint. “Frum” — for those unfamiliar with the term — is a Yiddish word which originally meant “sensitive,” but which has over the years come to indicate whether someone is religious according to an Orthodox standard. Officially, one becomes a member of this group by keeping the laws of the Sabbath, eating according to laws of kashrut, and accepting the belief that the Torah is true and its commandments are binding.

However, Benor’s work indicates that language use is a major indicator for people about their place within this community. Jewish consciously and unconsciously use it to show which subgroup they belong to and how recently they became frum. Learning which Hebrew or Yiddish words to adopt, which English words to avoid, favoring different pronunciation of different words, and the acceptance of certain syntactic structures seems superficial when compared to learning about essential Jewish philosophy and texts, but these are powerful signals of group membership. Also, Benor found evidence of BT influence on the FFB (“Frum From Birth”) community’s language use, and signs that while most BT’s strive to sound as “frum” as possible, others resist doing so for a variety of reasons.

Becoming Frum is written in an academic language format, but it’s not such hard-going that it is unintelligible to lay people who have little background in linguistics, sociology, or anthropology. For example, certain phenomena Benor documents, including the informal lessons newcomers receive at the hands of children and the (sometimes unintentional, sometimes intentional) shaming of newcomers’ linguistic mistakes, have implications for kiruv professionals and therapists working within the Jewish community.

As a side note, Benor worked also on the amazing Jewish English Lexicon, a online dictionary of common terms used by Jewish Americans. You can check out that site here.

(And just for disclosure, I did receive a free copy of the book, but made it clear that this was not a guarantee of a positive review of the book.)

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