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“Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism,” by Sarah Bunin Benor

 The language and lifestyle of Orthodox communities presents many mysteries to those outside of them.  “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism” explores how a person learns the language and behavioral customs when choosing to join such a community. 

Sarah Benor is on the faculty of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religon, and this book of original research is academic in tone while also providing details that will hold the interest of more casual readers. The author spent time in an Orthodox community in Philadelphia, interviewing and categorizing details about assimilation, motivation for becoming frum (a word that describes Jewish religious devotion), and speech conventions within the community. The minute details of her findings may be more than many readers need to know, but her summarization of other research about the Orthodox, and her explanations of the different types of people within the Orthodox community, provide a glimpse into lives that many of us will never experience.

Most of us probably think of the Jewish community as a continuum, with the Humanistic Jews on the secular side, moving through Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. A similar continuum exists just with the Orthodox, with the “modern Orthodox” at one end, and the “Black Hats” at the other. I was surprised to read that those within the ultra-Orthodox community most often refer to themselves as “Black Hats.” 

Benor characterizes the community she studied as somewhere between the center of Orthodoxy and the Black Hats. Within that group, she focuses on the BTs, “ba’alei teshuva,” people who were born into the more liberal side of Judaism and decided to become frum later in life. The other group is the FFBs, “frum from birth.”

The goal of many BTs is to seem like they are FFBs. They want to adopt the speech patterns and customs of the community in order to not seem to be outsiders. Benor noticed that some of the BTs take this to an extreme, trying to “out-frum” the FFBs, at least for a while. They might immediately start peppering their conversation with mamish (really) and nebach (a pity, too bad) and using the parting words of zay gezunt (be healthy). Linguists have published lists of words from Yiddish and Hebrew that are in common use in Orthodox communities, and the number is something over two thousand. There are also grammatical constructions and word usage in English that parallel Yiddish, such as “I asked that he should come inside to meet us” or, “We’re eating by Miriam.” 

Learning commonly used Hebrew and Yiddish expressions, and particularly how to pronounce them correctly and use them at the appropriate times, is a gradual process as a person begins spending more time in the Orthodox community. As is the case in most social groups, the young children are the most likely to point out errors in speech or dress in front of other people, while the adults are more discreet about helping people learn. Adopting the Hebrew or Yiddish form of one’s first name is a common step in assimilating, even if the American name is still used at work or with old friends. 

Benor’s methods for studying language and pronunciation are described in great detail and included observing in the community where she conducted her study, as well as trips to other Orthodox communities in New York, other U.S. cities, and Israel. She encountered some resistance when she asked members of the community to listen to recordings of other people and guess whether or not they were Orthodox. Some people considered this to be a breech of the rule against loshon hora (gossip), even though she assured them that all names would be changed before her research was published. In addition, she noticed that some people intentionally modified the way they spoke when they knew she was recording them to use as an example. She was able to get enough input to see that most FFBs had no trouble identifying speakers who had been raised in an Orthodox community. 

The author summarizes some of the other distinctive aspects of life beyond speech and language. The Orthodox style of dress is the most recognizable clue that someone is observant. The subtleties of when to wear a sheitel as opposed to a hat, or when the men will all be wearing black suits and when they will be more casual, vary in different communities. Men joining the community need to do quite a bit of studying in order to be able to deliver a respectable dvar torah at meals or services, while women need to learn traditional cooking as well as what behavior is acceptable. Menus tend to stick with recipes passed down from ancestors, and when someone served curry gefilte fish, everyone knew that the cook was a BT rather than FFB. Home decor tends to feature bookcases of siddurs and texts for religious study, and portraits of esteemed rabbis. Art or music of a suggestive nature would not be acceptable, though some BTs moved those items to the basement or private area rather than totally giving up their past interests.

Whether or not you delve into the more academic portions of this book, there is much to engage anyone who is curious about the lives of those in Orthodox communities. 

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