arts & entertainment
Studying 'Orthodox Jewish English'
Professor documents the role of language in taking on new, observant lifestyle.
New York Jewish Week
ver a kosher Chinese meal at
a Lunch & Learn program in
Princeton University's Center for
Jewish Life, a visiting academic offered some
chosen words about language — "Jewish lan-
guage," that is — one recent afternoon.
Sarah Benor, associate professor of
Contemporary Jewish Studies at the Los
Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College,
related a conversation she had taped as part
of the research for her new book, Becoming
Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language
and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Rutgers
University Press; paperback; $27.95).
Benor, quoting from her book, offered a
snippet of conversation with a baal teshuvah
(BT), a member of Orthodox Judaism's grow-
ing ranks of men and women who become
religiously observant as adults.
Said the baal teshuvah, in a discussion
about Passover: "The mitzvah of the matzah
by the seder should be — we're machmir. It's
a chumra to have shmura mishas haktsira."
Benor asked for comments.
"A lot of the words are not English:' one
Princeton student observed.
Exactly, Benor said. "Their English is dis-
tinct in many ways': That's what her excerpt
of BT speech was meant to show. And that,
in essence, is what her book documents.
(Translation, for those not familiar with
what Benor calls "Orthodox Jewish English":
mitzvah means commandment; matzah, of
course, is the unleavened bread eaten during
Passover; "by" is the Orthodox way of saying
"at"; machmir means strict; a chumra is a
stringency; shmura mishas haktsira is matzah
watched from the time of harvest.)
The non-English parts of the speaker's
ostensibly English sentence, with roots in
Hebrew and Yiddish, are perfectly under-
Conservative synagogue Benor spent a year
standable to anyone who grew up in yeshi-
nearly a decade ago amidst the Orthodox,
vah — and Talmud-based Orthodox society.
particularly the newly Orthodox — her field-
But many are foreign to many outsiders, in
work took place in an unnamed community
whose ranks baalei teshuvah were in their
in the Northeast — learning how the latter
pre-Orthodox largely secular upbringings.
became the former.
As they acculturate, Benor shows, the
In one-on-one meetings and commu-
newly Orthodox frequent-
nal classes she taped, at
ly take on the linguistic
Shabbat meals whose
trappings of the lifelong
details she committed to
Orthodox, the Yiddish and
memory — out of respect
Hebrew expressions, the
for Orthodox practice, she
How Newcomers Learn the Language and
Culture of Orthodox Judaism
ubiquitous use of Baruch
did no writing on Shabbat,
HaShem (thank God), the
even out-of-sight of her
verbal "clicks" that indi-
hosts — she noted how
cate hesitation, the "sing-
BTs embark on a conscious
Her book shows how
to become full-fledged
BTs use — and misuse —
Orthodox Jews, to be able
this acquired language.
to present themselves
Benor, 37, used so-
as FFBs, to become "the
called Frumspeak as a
FFBs they can never be:'
SARAH BIJNIN BENOR
tool, one way of looking
That is Frum-From-Birth
at and understanding
Orthodox Jews, as many
the larger world of Jewish religious culture.
to-the-manner-born Orthodox Jews describe
Becoming Frum grew out of her more aca-
demic Ph.D. thesis, Second Style Acquisition:
As an outsider, she received a surprising
The Linguistic Socialization of Newly
amount of access to Orthodox homes and
institutions, she says.
"I see [language] as a very important part
Many, she says, were as interested in her
of the teshuvah process" — that's a chiddush
topic as she was. Others hoped their associa-
(new finding) of her book, which other stud-
tion with her would influence her to take on
ies of baalei teshuvah mention only in pass-
an Orthodox lifestyle.
ing, she says.
"Some people assumed I would become
"Language use is an 'act of identity'
Orthodox" — frum, the community's term of
through which we align ourselves with
choice for Orthodox behavior — "myself'
some people and distinguish ourselves from
Not likely, says Benor, secure in her own
others:' Benor writes in the book's introduc-
Jewish identity and level of observance.
tion. "In other words, language use not only
"About halfway through my fieldwork:' she
reflects social categories; it also helps to con-
writes, "a community member embarrassed
me publicly because I was not becoming
Benor approached her research as "both
insider and outsider:'
"This shaming may not have been inten-
"Non-Orthodox but religiously engaged:'
tional because it happened on Purim, the
an "active member of a minyan ... part of a
festive holiday when there is a tradition for
>1111 Nate Bloom
Special to the Jewish News
Love Story Surprise
‘12 Most baby boomers will remember
(1) Love Story, the mega-hit 1970 film
that co-starred Ryan O'Neal as Oliver
Barrett IV, a rich WASP Harvard
College student, who weds Jenny
(0) Cavalerri, a working-class Italian-
American Radcliffe College student,
played by Ali MacGraw, over the
objections of his snob father.
The late Erich Segal, who wrote
the story, was a practicing Jew. Also
Jewish was the late John Marley, who
portrayed MacGraw's father (he was
January 2 • 2014
the film producer with a horse's head
in his bed in The Godfather).
But here's the surprise: A friend
who is a family history expert has
confirmed that MacGraw's mother's
parents were both Jewish. The
actress has only admitted to "maybe"
having a Jewish grandmother. He also
tells me that Ryan O'Neal's maternal
grandmother was the daughter of
two Jewish parents (his other grands
I'm not sure if O'Neal and/or
MacGraw even know they are "hala-
chic" Jews. Still, I don't think I can
watch the movie again without think-
ing that its famous tag line should be
changed to: "Oy, Papa, love means
never having to say you're sorry. Nu?"
At the time the ABC series Last Man
Standing, with former Michigander Tim
Allen and Nancy Travis, debuted in 2011,
I thought that Molly
Ephraim, now 27, who
plays the couple's
might be Jewish.
tion in a fun 2013
Passover seder video
Ephraim has made
Jewish men to get drunk." Which that man
probably was, she says.
Her most vivid memory: the 5-year-old
girl in an Orthodox home where Benor was
spending one Shabbat who put a hat on the
visitor's head, tucked Benor's hair behind her
ears and declared, "Now you look like a lady'
Coming from a kid, it wasn't patronizing,
Sometimes, the men and women she met
expressed surprise that she — not a member
of the Orthodox community — was familiar
with frum life and language.
"I often tweaked my self-representation in
an effort to navigate the boundary between
access and honesty:' Benor writes. "Like
some newly Orthodox Jews, I did not want
people to think I was an impostor, pretend-
ing to be a strictly Orthodox Jew.
`Another area in which I maintained dis-
tinctiveness was my language," she writes. "I
did use many elements of Orthodox Jewish
English, pronouncing most Hebrew words
according to the Ashkenazi norms com-
mon in the community. But when I used
liturgical Hebrew aloud, I generally used the
Americanized Modern Hebrew pronuncia-
tion that I grew up with:'
Her Princeton speech featured references
to "flipping out" (usually young people from
Modern Orthodox families who take on
haredi beliefs and levels of observance after
studying in Israeli yeshivot and seminaries)
and the "bungee effect" (baalei teshuvah who
go to halachic extremes before bouncing
back to a more moderate levels of action).
As an undergraduate at Columbia
University, Benor read an article about the
multiplicity of Jewish languages and dialects,
and a career was born. Her Ph.D. in linguis-
tics is from Stanford University Founding
editor of the Jewish Language Research
Website and moderator of the Jewish
Languages Mailing List, she is editor of the
Journal of Jewish Languages.
three feature films: College Road Trip
(2008), Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
and Paranormal Activity: The Marked
Ones. The latter flick opens on Friday,
Jan. 3. Ephraim reprises a character
named Ali Rey, who once again jousts
with demonic ghosts.
Ephraim has a bachelor's degree
in religion from the University of
Pennsylvania. In 2010, she starred
in an Off-Broadway production of
The Diary of Anne Frank, which was
praised by the New York Times.
By the way, Nancy Travis isn't
Jewish, but she and her Jewish hus-
band are raising their kids in their
father's Jewish faith.