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Becoming Frum

How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism

Sarah Bunin Benor

Publication Year: 2012

When non-Orthodox Jews become frum (religious), they encounter much more than dietary laws and Sabbath prohibitions. They find themselves in the midst of a whole new culture, involving matchmakers, homemade gefilte fish, and Yiddish-influenced grammar. Becoming Frum explains how these newcomers learn Orthodox language and culture through their interactions with community veterans and other newcomers. Some take on as much as they can as quickly as they can, going beyond the norms of those raised in the community. Others maintain aspects of their pre-Orthodox selves, yielding unique combinations, like Matisyahu’s reggae music or Hebrew words and sing-song intonation used with American slang, as in “mamish (really) keepin’ it real.”Sarah Bunin Benor brings insight into the phenomenon of adopting a new identity based on ethnographic and sociolinguistic research among men and women in an American Orthodox community. Her analysis is applicable to other situations of adult language socialization, such as students learning medical jargon or Canadians moving to Australia. Becoming Frum offers a scholarly and accessible look at the linguistic and cultural process of “becoming.”

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Jewish Cultures of the World

Title Series Information

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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List of Figures

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pp. ix

List of Tables

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pp. xi

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pp. xiii

This book is intended for multiple audiences: scholars, students, and anyone else who is interested in language, identity, or Jews. While the primary fields that have influenced my research are sociolinguistics, anthropology, and Jewish studies, I have also written this book with other academic fields in mind...

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pp. xv-xvi

This book has been over a decade in the making, and many people deserve my thanks. The first and most important acknowledgment goes to the frum Jews who enabled me to conduct my research. Thank you so much for the time you spent as my consultants and for your commitment to...

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Transcription Conventions

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pp. xvii

In English writing, Hebrew and Yiddish words can be transcribed in many different ways. Some journals and publishers use the Library of Congress system for Hebrew and the YIVO system for Yiddish. The problem is that in the writing of American Jews, words often come from both Hebrew and Yiddish. If I...

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1. Introduction: Orthodox Jews and Language Socialization

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pp. 1-30

The lights come up. In the middle of the stage stands a young man wearing a black hat, full beard, and black suit with no tie. He holds the microphone close and begins chanting a slow Hasidic niggun, a wordless melody, in a minor key. All of a sudden the rhythm section starts up and the singer switches to an...

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2. "Now You Look Like a Lady": Adventures in Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Fieldwork

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pp. 31-51

To find out how BTs learn Orthodox language and culture, I carried out a three-tiered methodology: a year of ethnographic observation and interviews, recordings of community members’ speech, and an experiment using recorded speech samples. In this chapter I explain these methods and the issues that arose...

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3. "He Has Tzitzis Hanging Out of His Ponytail": Orthodox Cultural Practices and How BTs Adapt Them

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pp. 52-80

One late Friday afternoon, I arrived at the Greenbaums’ home on Parker Street, near the middle of a block that had become very familiar to me. During my fieldwork, I spent several Shabboses and holidays with various families on this block, where twenty- five of the twenty- eight families are Orthodox Jews. Since...

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4. "This is Not What to Record": Yiddish, Hebrew, and the English of Orthodox Jews

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pp. 81-109

This song points to the widespread understanding that American Orthodox Jews, especially men who study in yeshiva, speak a unique combination of four languages: English, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic. In this chapter, I explain the role of these four languages in Orthodox communities, I give details about how...

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5. "Torah or Toyrah": Language and the Modern Orthodox to Black Hat Continuum

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pp. 111-127

When Orthodox Jews create a profile on the popular online matchmaking service Frumster.com, they must select a category that describes their religiosity. These categories include four that are seen as existing on a continuum from least to most strict in observance and least to most distinct from...

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6. "Just Keepin' It Real, Mamish": Why Ba'alei Teshuva Adopt (or Avoid) Orthodox Language

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pp. 128-143

Rivka Bracha grew up known as Rebecca and had little exposure to Judaism. Two years ago, in her early twenties, she started attending classes at Ner Tamid. Since then, she has spent several months studying in a seminary in Israel, moved to Milldale, and married another Orthodox Jew. She got rid of her tank tops...

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7. "I Finally Got the Lingo": Progression in Newcomers' Acquisition of Orthodox Language

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pp. 144-167

It is clear from the previous chapter that BTs do eventually acquire many of the Yiddish and Hebrew influences in Orthodox Jewish English. But, unlike students learning a foreign language, this acquisition does not happen in a formal language classroom. As I show in this chapter, BTs go through a long and...

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8. "A Ba'al Teshuva Freak": Distinguishing Practices of Newly Orthodox Jews

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pp. 168-184

One Shabbos afternoon, I was lounging around at the Cohen home after a delicious lunch. My belly was still heavy from the cholent, so I preferred to stay in the living room with nine-year-old Avrumy and fourteen-year-old Shmuly rather than join their brothers and sisters who were running around in the...

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9. Matisyahu and "My Fair Lady": Reflections on Adult Language Socialization

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pp. 185-195

During a guitar solo, Matisyahu dances in the middle of the stage. His white tzitzis hang out from under his collar shirt, halfway down to his sneakers. The colorful lights illuminate his contagious smile, just days after he shaved off his iconic beard. He removes his kipah and takes a running leap off the stage...


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pp. 197-219


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pp. 221-235


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pp. 237-248

E-ISBN-13: 9780813553917
E-ISBN-10: 0813553911
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813553900
Print-ISBN-10: 0813553903

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 6 figures, 16 tables
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Jewish Cultures of the World

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Jewish way of life.
  • Jews -- Return to Orthodox Judaism.
  • Orthodox Judaism -- Social aspects.
  • Hebrew language -- Social aspects.
  • Yiddish language -- Social aspects.
  • Sociolinguistics.
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