While working in the library as a college student, Sarah Bunin Benor stumbled upon references to Judeo-Italian and other Jewish languages she’d never heard of before. This discovery inspired her to become a sociolinguist and study Jewish languages around the world and close to home. Her book, “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism,” which was published late last year, shows how newly Orthodox Jews in America express their religious identity in part by adopting linguistic usages that characterize the communities they have joined.
In “Becoming Frum,” which was awarded second place in the Jewish Book Council’s prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, Benor illustrates the unique way in which American Jewish speech exists on a continuum — the more one wants to stress one’s Jewish ritual observance, the more one’s speech tends to deviate from standard American English. This is why a BT (Ba’al Teshuvah, a Jew who becomes Orthodox) will employ different speech patterns from someone who grew up Orthodox, or in the common parlance of some Orthodox communities, as FFB (Frum From Birth).
Benor founded the Jewish English Lexicon as an “Urban Dictionary of Jewish language” to track words derived from various Jewish languages that Jews use even when they are speaking English.
An associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus, Benor, 38, was also an active member of the advisory panel for the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews. As she notes, “Language is a fascinating lens through which we can learn about a community.”