The Sounds of Becoming Frum

November 1, 2010
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Sarah Bunin Benor

When non-observant Jews become Orthodox, or ba’alei teshuvah (BT), they take on the rules and prohibitions of halakhah. But they also find themselves in the midst of a whole new culture involving matchmakers, homemade brisket and farfel, and Yiddish-inflected grammar.

Language plays such an important role in how Orthodox Jews identify each other that BTs add constructions such as “staying by them” and “you want that I should help you?” to their otherwise standard grammar. One BT man recalled, in a joking way: “How is it that Harvard-educated kids can start talking like they’re from the shtetl?” Of course, BTs don’t sound quite like their immigrant great-grandparents, but many adopt enough of the features of Orthodox language to raise a few eyebrows among their family and friends.

The most salient feature of Orthodox language is the addition of hundreds of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish words into English speech and writing. This includes words in the religious sphere (like “tsnius,” modesty; “chumra,” stringency; and “blech,” the metal stove-covering that facilitates re-warming food on Shabbat) and words that might be part of any ordinary conversation (like mamash, really). As Jews increase their religious observance, they increase the presence of God in their language, talking regularly about “haShem” and responding to “How are you?” with “Baruch haShem,” “bless God.” Some­times, Hebrew words are integrated into English following Yiddish patterns, as in “That’s another way we’re mekayem (fulfill) the mitzvah” and “Don’t be mevatel (nullify/waste) my z’man (time).” Constructions like these may sound strange to non-Orthodox Jews and are sometimes hard for BTs to learn.

English grammar can also be distinctive. Orthodox  Jews use the word “so” in environments where it is not generally used: “If I see someone who’s using the wrong language, so I’ll realize that they’re just becoming frum.” Adverbial phrases are sometimes placed before rather than after the object: “I was able to pick up pretty well the lingo.” There are distinctive ways of pronouncing some English vowels and consonants. And, of course, there is the quasi-chanting intonation used to indicate phrase boundaries in Talmud study, which has transferred into everyday speech as rise-fall contours.

While words are the most prominent element of Orthodox language, pronunciations are often critical in distinguishing different groups of Orthodox Jews. As part of an online survey I conducted with sociologist Steven M. Cohen, we asked respondents how they pronounce the holiday of Tabernacles: Israeli Hebrew “Sukkot” (Soo-COAT) or Ashkenazic/Yiddish “Sukkos” (SUK-kiss). Self-identified non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews were more likely to say “Soo-COAT,” and Orthodox and Black Hat, or Haredi, Jews, were more likely to say “SUK-kiss.”

We see the same pattern with the greeting used between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews tend to say, “Gmar cha-tee-MAH to-VAH”; Orthodox Jews toward the middle of the continuum are more likely to say, “Gmar cha-SEE-mah TO-vah”; and those toward the Black Hat pole are more likely to say, “Gmar cha-SEE-mah TOY-vah,” exhibiting the most influence from Ashkenazic Hebrew.

When people become Orthodox, they encounter this vast landscape of sociolinguistic variation, and they make decisions — conscious or not — about which words to take on and which pronunciations to use. Whether they say “HA-la-KHAH” or “ha-LUH-khuh” and how much they change their grammar helps others identify them not only as Orthodox but also along the continuum between Modern Orthodox and Haredi.

BTs can also use language to remind others that they were not always Orthodox. Although some BTs adopt Orthodox language as fully and quickly as they can, others never adapt completely, avoiding certain pronunciations or grammatical constructions and maintaining some of their original slang. As one BT told me, “If someone said ‘Just keepin’ it real, mamish,’ I would know they’re definitely BT.” Same goes for a man wearing a black hat with a T-shirt and trendy sunglasses or a woman who prepares her gefilte fish with Indian spices. Language — like other elements of culture — allows BTs to indicate not only that they are a certain type of Orthodox Jew, but also that they are ba’alei teshuvah.

Many samples of frum speech patterns are available online. Here are a few:

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Sarah Bunin Benor, who holds a doctorate in linguistics, is associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She is finishing a book called Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, based on a year of ethnographic fieldwork.

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