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

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

By Sarah Bunin Benor. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London:
Rutgers University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii + 248.

Becoming Frum is about a sort of immigration—a movement of people from one community to another, a new community with its own variant of English. Languages can often be studied in schools and elsewhere. Immigrants to different countries can practice speaking, reading and writing the languages of the countries they have moved to. They can look up words in dictionaries. Dialects and non-standard languages are usually not taught. They may not be recognized as existing in their own right but instead may be looked upon as incorrect ways of speaking.

People who enter Orthodox Jewish communities do not have the option of studying the grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and intonation patterns of their new friends and neighbors. These people are called BTs. The initials stand for ba’alei teshuva, meaning “those who return/repent.” The BTs have entered the world of the FFBs, initials that stand for “frum from birth.” Frum means “religious” (xiii). These sets of initials are part of the vocabulary of what may be called Orthodox Jewish English or Yeshivish or Frumspeak. BTs learn the language of FFBs by immersion or by asking questions or both.

Orthodox Jewish communities can be rather different from each other, and these differences are reflected in their language. Chapter 5 of Sarah Bunin Benor’s very informative book is called “‘Torah’ or “Toyrah’: Language and the Modern Orthodox to Black Hat Continuum.” Torah reflects Israeli pronunciation and Toyrah is the Ashkenazi pronunciation that comes from the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe and their descendants. BTs are likely to have learned Israeli Hebrew, the pronunciation more commonly used in American non-Orthodox communities, before becoming Orthodox and then shifting to the Ashkenazi pronunciation of their FFB community.

In Chapter 5, Benor does not discuss a third pronunciation: Teyrah, used by speakers of Northeastern Yiddish, and in particular, by Lubavitcher Hasidim, also known as Chabad. Benor tells us, “The idea for this book came about when I was researching language at a Chabad center in California” (2). Chabad is known for reaching out to non-observant Jews, and Benor lists it among the organizations “that help BTs make the transition to Orthodoxy” (14). Could the pronunciation of Teyrah have become standardized since I studied the speech of Lubavitcher children (Jochnowitz 1968)? If it has, could that be the result of Chabad’s outreach to the non-Orthodox?

As part of the discussion of the black-hat continuum, Benor presents a chart with information about the percentage of Yiddish speakers in different groups (117). Not surprisingly, the more religious the group, the more Yiddish speakers we find. A bit more surprising is the discrepancy between men and women. In the more Orthodox categories, the percentage of men who speak Yiddish is higher—the more Orthodox, the greater the number of male Yiddish speakers. Knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew is related to the degree of study of religious texts, which in turn leads to more borrowings in one’s English. Benor reports, “In my research on a different Orthodox group, a Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic community in California, I found that boys and young men used more loanwords than girls and women, especially words related with traditional text study” (92). This is related to the educational system among Lubavitchers, where young boys are taught in Yiddish but girls have secular classes in English. “Thus, the girls encounter English as a language of instruction some eight years before the boys do” (Jochnowitz, 1968).

Immigrants who arrived as adults typically speak their adopted new language with foreign accents and with grammatical interference from their native speech. BTs in an FFB community are probably less successful than immigrants in losing the identifying traits of their backgrounds since the language of their new community is less clearly defined and less easily studied than a national language. BTs do not all experience the same reactions to this situation. Benor reports that while many Orthodox communities “are extremely welcoming of BTs and do much to help them integrate, a number of BTs in various locales they have also encountered prejudice and discrimination” (187). Some BTs respond to this situation with hyperaccommodation, Benor’s own term for what is traditionally called “hypercorrection,” which is defined, as Benor tells us, by sociolinguist Peter Trudgill as “attempts to adopt a more prestigious variety of speech which, through overgeneralization, leads to the production of forms which do not occur in the target variety” (170). Perhaps an example of this is that people who have been taught to say “It is I” extend the rule incorrectly to “Between you and I,” even though they would never say “Between we.”

In addition to linguistic hyperaccommodation, there can be cultural hyperaccommodation. Benor reports that some BTs “threw away all their old clothing, music, art, or photographs” (175). Nevertheless, I have often seen obviously Orthodox Jews—modern Orthodox—in the audience at concerts of the New York Philharmonic. This is part of the Orthodox continuum mentioned above. The continuum seems to be getting ever more extended in the direction of strictness. “As a number of historians have explained, Haredi (Black Hat)communities in the twentieth century took on stringencies in religious and social practice that their grandparents did not follow” (176).

I was born in 1937 in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, and I lived there until I was almost 14, in 1951. In those days, the neighborhood had a reputation for being Orthodox. It was nowhere near as Orthodox as it is today. During my childhood, children spoke English and nothing but English to their friends, even if they could speak Yiddish to their immigrant parents or grandparents. Not too long ago, I walked down the street and passed some boys playing ball during recess. They not only spoke Yiddish to each other, but they used unadulterated Central (Polish) Yiddish, sounding just like my mother. Were there BTs, or people who had become significantly more Orthodox, in the 1940s and 1950s? I had heard of isolated examples, but for the most part, everybody was assimilating into American culture and modifying their religious practices—or maybe even abandoning them.

How many BTs are there? How big a percentage are they of Orthodox communities? Is this happening all over the United States? A major anthropological development seems to have occurred, in which case it needs to be measured. When did it begin? In the days when I knew the Lubavitcher Hasidim whose dialect I described, it seemed that there were hardly any BTs. I certainly had never heard the expression.

Why do people become BTs? Salvation doesn’t seem to be an issue. Instead, faith seems to be a reward for obeying the commandments, as suggested by the order of the words na’aseh v’nishma (We will do and we will understand). In Benor’s words, “The order of the two actions suggests that knowledge and spiritual transformation can be secondary to religious behavior, a trope common among BTs” (4).

Becoming Frum tells us very much about clicks, intonation, phrasal verbs, food, clothing, and culture. This information makes us hunger for another book—a book about both statistics and motivation.

Reference

Jochnowitz, George. “Bilingualism and Dialect Mixture among Lubavitcher Hasidic Children.” In American Speech Vol. 43, No. 3 (1968).

This review appeared in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 36, No. 2. 2015.