Sarah Benor on Orthodox Culture & Linguistics

At another session at the Yarnton Manor Conference on Modern Orthodoxy the topic was the sociology of the Orthodox community. The speakers were Daniel Sperber: “Tradition, Continuity and Innovation: Opposing Halakhic Concerns” Sarah Benor, “Frum Unity, Frum Diversity: The Orthodox Continuum in Popular Culture.”Samuel Heilman, “Old and New Orthodoxies”and Chaim I Waxman – Respondent. The presentation by Sarah Benor was novel and engaging. For those who just missed her at Limmud-NY, then catch her talk at Princeton University this Wednesday. (This blog has a sizable Princeton readership who should attend.)

Sarah Bunin Benor is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (Los Angeles campus) and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Linguistics Department at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University in Linguistics in 2004. She teaches about the social science of American Jews, as well as about language and culture. In addition to the book Becoming Frum, she has published many academic papers and given lectures around the country about Jewish languages, linguistics, Yiddish, and American Jews. Dr. Benor edits the Journal of Jewish Languages and the Jewish Language Research Website, both of which she founded.

She is almost single-handedly (re)creating a field of Jewish Linguistics.

She has a website of Jewish-English keeping track of Yinglish, Hebrish, and other distinctive ways Jews speak English.

The goals of the Jewish English Lexicon (JEL) are to collect data on the English of Jews in America and elsewhere and to make it available to the general public. JEL is a collaborative database of distinctive words that are used in the speech or writing of English-speaking Jews. Think of it as the Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary of Jewish language.

She wrote a seminal paper on the language of American Jews as a Jewish language and concludes:

Yes, American Jews do speak a Jewish language comparable to Judeo-Persian, JudeoArabic, Judeo-Greek, and many other Diaspora languages.
When we analyze the distinctive repertoire available to American Jews, we find that it does have most of the components common among other Jewish languages. It has a non-Jewish coterritorial base language (English), a Hebrew/Aramaic component, influences from a previous Jewish language (Yiddish), displaced dialectalism, other distinctive features not linked to previous languages, avoidance of non-Jewish religious features, and a recognition that Jews use distinctive language.

In addition to these similarities, we also find important differences. Jewish American English is written in the same alphabet as general American English (albeit with occasional remnants of Hebrew orthography), rendering it more accessible to non-Jews than any language written in the Jewish alphabet.
American Jews are generally able to speak an English indistinguishable from that of nonJews—even to pass as non-Jews, if they so choose—leaving American Jews much less vulnerable to linguistic ridicule than some Jews of the past.

Prof Benor’s recent book is Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism (Go read it!)

The book has a website and here are some excerpts:

“One of the few times I heard Milldale Orthodox Jews listening to non-Orthodox music was in the Kramers’ van on the way to New York for a wed­ding. The Kramer parents both became BTs in their twenties, and their teenage children have grown up as FFBs. For part of the trip, they listened to an Orthodox band. When the tape ended, they turned on the radio, which was set to a classic rock station. When “American Pie” started, the children got excited. They sang along for the chorus and some of the verses. But just as the singer was about to say, “The three men I admire most, the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” the mother turned the volume all the way down. One of the sons asked why, and she answered, “It’s words you don’t want stuck in your head.” The older daughter said, “Probably something about Yoshke” (the Yid­dish diminutive form of Jesus and the name I generally heard applied to him in Orthodox communities). After “American Pie” was over, the mother put in another Orthodox tape, which happened to start with “Ani ma’amin,” a Hebrew song stating a “full belief” that the Moshiach (Messiah) will come. I couldn’t help but smile about the ironic contrast.” (p. 74)
“For many BTs, feeling or being called inauthentic does not stop them from participating in Orthodox practices. When Mark was a Peripheral BT, he told me that he felt he was not acting like himself when he used chanting intonation or wore a black hat. But he sometimes adopted these behaviors anyway, because, he said, “it’s fun.” So when he was planning his wedding, he told friends and family that it would be “black hat optional, and I’m opting in.” Although put­ting on this “costume” did not seem authentic to him, it was an enjoyable way of connecting with the community. As Ira, an advisor at a BT yeshiva, says, “To a large part, everyone’s putting on a costume in [a BT] yeshiva.” This self-consciousness tends to be only temporary; BTs who continue to participate in a cultural practice eventually feel it is an authentic part of who they have become.” (p. 178)

She has a fascinating article on the language of non-Orthodox Jewish elites, the super-Jews, showing their language as distinct from ordinary Jews.

I argue that the major factor in the distinctive linguistic profile of non-Orthodox Jewish elites is their interaction with others like them. Anyone who attends synagogue more than monthly, has spent significant time in Israel, and/or reports that most of their close friends are engaged in Jewish life (the three criteria we used to define super Jews) likely has regular conversations with others like them. In addition, almost half of young super Jews in the sample refrain from handling money on Shabbat, which suggests that they may also host and/or attend Shabbat meals regularly. We know from studies around the world that people who talk to each other on a regular basis often converge linguistically…Participating in Jewish religious and communal life offers Jews ample opportunity to converse with others like them and to learn and spread Hebrew and Yiddish words. Read the rest here.

And she has an article on how the language of Reform sisterhoods changed . “From Sabbath to Shabbat: Changing Language of Reform Sisterhood Leaders, 1913-2012.” In Women of Reform Judaism / National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods Centenary Volume

1) What was it like for you as a non-Orthodox Jew doing research in an Orthodox community? Is there anything you want to convey to the Orthodox community?

It was a great experience. I am a religiously engaged non-Orthodox
Jew, and I came to my research with a good deal of knowledge about
halacha, tefillah, brachot, and chagim. I also came in with
proficiency in Hebrew and Yiddish. In that sense, I had an easier time
making sense of Orthodox culture and fitting in than some new BTs and
gerim (converts) who come from secular or non-Jewish backgrounds. On the other hand, my experiences also mirrored those of a new BT in many ways, as
we both encountered new traditions, Ashkenazi pronunciations,
different gender distinctions, and a community that’s much more tight
knit than our own. One major difference between my experiences and
those of BTs: I knew that my participation in Orthodoxy was just
temporary, and they expect that theirs will be long-term. Some of the
people I met during my research expected that I would become frum
myself, and a few were disappointed that I didn’t. I hope that
Orthodox Jews will read my book, even though it’s written by a
non-Orthodox Jew. I hope they’ll see in my writing my deep respect for
Orthodox communities and culture. And I hope they’ll invite me to give
talks at their shuls and kiruv centers.

2) What is your method of sociolinguistics? And how does it produce different results than other sociological methods?

My main method is ethnography: hanging out with people, visiting their
homes, attending their lifecycle events, going to shul and school with
them, and going out to restaurants with them. I observe their
interactions, I talk to them informally, and I also do formal
interviews. Throughout this process, I write detailed notes about what
I observed and heard, and I analyze those notes regularly, leading to
more questions I can ask and hypotheses I can test. This is a classic
anthropological technique, and it’s increasingly used in sociology
too. In addition, I also listened carefully to their language and
analyzed their use of words from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish, their
grammatical influences from Yiddish, and other distinctive features
(like /t/ release). I also did a sociolinguistic experiment called a
matched guise test, in which I recorded an individual saying a
sentence in two slightly different ways (like “Do you know where he
was going?” and “Do you know where he was goingk” or “rosh chodesh”
and “rosh choydesh”), mixed up a bunch of speech excerpts, and played
them back for community members. I then asked them whether they
thought the speaker was Orthodox and FFB (frum from birth), and their responses told me a lot about the linguistic feature in question.

3) How does your data show Modern Orthodoxy as separate from the rest of Orthodoxy?

In my study of responses on, I found that users who
self-select the category Modern Orthodox Liberal differed
significantly from those who selected other categories (Modern
Orthodox Machmir, Yeshivish Modern, and Yeshivish Black Hat) in a
number of indicators, including head covering (kippah/hat type for
men, plans to cover hair for women), tzitzit, and skirts vs. pants. I
found a continuum in all four categories for several of the
indicators, but for some, Modern Orthodox Liberal was distinct from
the other three.

4) How do certain ways of pronouncing letters like stronger Ts show rabbinic authority?

Americans have a few ways of pronouncing a /t/ at the end of a word,
including with or without a release of air. The released /t/ is common among people presenting themselves with an air of authority. This is not just an Orthodox thing- it can be heard in diverse communities. I found that in Orthodox communities /t/ release is more common among men than women and that people tend to release their /t/s more when they are in a position of authority (or when they want to indicate a stance of adamance). It’s not just a rabbinic linguistic feature, but certainly many rabbis release their /t/s frequently, because they often seek to speak with authority.  ( AB- to articulate -a speech sound,  so as to produce an audible puff of breath, as with the first t  of total,  the second t  being  usually unaspirated.)

5) What do you make of the Orthodox rejection of liberal Jews from their purview? What do your HUC students not grasp about Orthodoxy or where are they most resistant (other than egalitarianistm)?

This is, in my opinion, one of the most pressing issues facing
American Jewry today: the fact that many Orthodox and non-Orthodox
Jews have disdain for each other. I think the problem stems mostly
from lack of knowledge and contact. In my fieldwork I heard some
Orthodox Jews (especially but not only ba’alei teshuva) making
critical comments about Reform and Conservative Jews and their
institutions. And in my everyday life in the non-Orthodox world (in
Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and post-denominational
egalitarian circles), I sometimes hear critical comments about
Orthodox Jews and their institutions. I also hear people on both sides
of this divide talking about “Jewish diversity and unity” and “klal yisrael” while
(sometimes inadvertently) excluding those on the other side. Most
people who make critical comments do not understand how diverse and
dynamic the other group is. Orthodox Jews tend not to know that some Conservative Jews observe Shabbat strictly and that some Reform services are now mostly in Hebrew. And non-Orthodox Jews tend not to know that some Modern Orthodox shuls have women’s tefillah groups and that many Haredim have professional degrees. People in both groups assume that those in the other group have no interest in them. I hope this book serves as a small step in addressing this issue: non-Orthodox readers will learn about a Black Hat community and about diversity in the Orthodox world, and Orthodox readers will understand that a non-Orthodox researcher can represent frum Jews and frum culture in a positive and respectful way.

5) Any thoughts on how Orthodox Academics shift their way of speaking in presentation, discussion, and dinner? Can you give examples?

At the conference on Orthodoxy, most of the participants were Orthodox. One of my favorite parts of the conference was the question and answer session after one particular talk. This one speaker gave his presentation in a very academic way, talking about the Pentateuch and referring to biblical concepts with their English names. As soon as he began his answer to the first question, he switched to a more Yeshivish style, using Hebrew names for biblicalconcepts and using other distinctive Orthodox features, like the Israeli hesitation click. His New York accent even became stronger. During the rest of the conference, including coffee breaks, meals, and other academic sessions, he (along with most of the other attendees) used varying degrees of Orthodox features in his English, but he never shifted back to pure Academese. This kind of style shifting is common and useful. We wouldn’t expect a frum scholar to use Yeshivish at AAR, and we wouldn’t expect him to use Academese at his rov’s mussar shmues.

6) How do ba’alei teshuva distinguish themselves from FFBs?

It depends on the individual. Some BTs (acronym for ba’alei teshuva),
especially those who have been frum for many years, are
indistinguishable from FFBs. Those individuals sometimes intentionally
pass as FFB and don’t correct people who assume they are FFB. But many
do not feel comfortable with this situation, and they avoid it by
referring to their non-Orthodox past or to their process of teshuva.
However, most new BTs are not able to pass as FFB. Some indicate their
BT status by trying too hard to fit in – maybe their skirt is longer
than it needs to be, they display their tzitzis too conspicuously, or
they say “baruch Hashem” and “mamish” too much. Others indicate their
BT status through unique combinations, like geflite fish made with
with Indian spices, a black hat worn with trendy sunglasses, or Hebrew
and Yiddish words combined with American slang (like “mamish keepin’
it real”). This distinctiveness is sometimes intentional and sometimes
not. As I write in chapter 1: “Even when BTs attempt to pass as FFB,
their in-between status may become apparent to those in the know,
based on the tilt of a hat, the slit of a skirt, or the shape of a

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11 responses to “Sarah Benor on Orthodox Culture & Linguistics

  1. Hypothesis: The articulated T goes back to Joseph Lookstein teaching enunciation to generations of smicha students.

    • Interesting, but the three people I think of who spoke that way (if only sometimes) would not likely have had much contact with R’ Lookstein or his students in their childhood:

      Julia Child (who used a good deal of butt’her)
      My former boss and now co-worker (non-religious Israeli, raised & lives in Queens)
      Dad (shed his Brooklyn accent when he went to Juilliard in the 1930s, totally non-religious until, well, most of his life).

      Dad only used that aspirated-T in formal speaking. We have a tape from the late 1980s, an oral-history interview for the Chicago Symphony, in which he uses the aspirat’hed T, but I don’t remember him using it in normal conversation. Which validates the authority-figure supposition. I think my old supervisor would say supp’hose as well. He, like I, went to Princeton, but I don’t remember people speaking that way there.

  2. Question: What is the role of Jewish English in holding together conflicting Jewish communities divided by space, halachic observance, and ideologies? Will the fact that Reform teens are being taught the word “tachlis” (one advisor twittered the word “tachlitic” from the NFTY convention today) connect them to ex-ffbs 20 years from now?

    And does Jewish English have parallel dialects in other segments of contemporary America? What is the expected lifespan for a patois like this?

    • Great questions. I see Jewish English as both a connector and a divider. The fact that many Jews share a few dozen Hebrew and Yiddish words that their non-Jewish neighbors do not know serves to unite Jews of diverse backgrounds (including Reform and Orthodox), like bris, bar mitzvah, hamantashen, yortsayt candle, haftorah, etc. But the fact that there are many more words that some use and others don’t – along with major differences in pronunciation – serves to highlight communal boundaries.

  3. Fascinating work. I have a wish list for some additional and parallel studies and a few musings:

    1) A study of the varying linguistic patterns of kollel wives at work vs at home, and those of kollel/yeshiva students entering the workforce.

    As an earlier point of comparison you could look at how expats from Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn of the 50′s and 60′s by way of professional and grad schools to professional communities outside of NY dropped their Brooklyn accents like hot potatoes (I grew up among this demographic). Even when “talking in learning” there was seldom any Brooklyneese or yeshivishisms.

    My armchair research indicates that yeshivish talk (and with it a yeshivish pronunciation of Hebrew based on the polish inflection) arose a generation later. The yeshivas of the 50s and 60s were staffed by Europeans, their students saw themselves as distinctly American. The yeshivish culture only arose later when the yeshivas became staffed with American-raised rabbis who wanted to retreat from the cultural mainstream.

    2) A study of BT communities where BTs make up a large portion of the orthodox population. I particularly wonder about Dallas, where there is already a pronounced difference between locals and newcomers who often integrate southwestern speech to fit in (G.W. Bush being the most famous example). Then you have an influx of NY/NJ rabbis. You end up with this incredible mix of Jews from outside sounding more Texan, Jews from Texas trying to sound more NY Jewish, but the fact that so much of the community is BT means that passing is not as important. I think you might find a very different dynamic at work there. At least those are my speculations from visiting a few times.

    3) As I’m sure you know, the same phenomena seen among BTs is found among centrist orthodox who enter the yeshiva world, or attempt to straddle both. Depending on the background they need to drop their day school havara, incorporate yeshvishisms, and learn various forms of shukling and thumb dipping.(By the way, how many rashei yeshiva at YU give shiur with an Israeli-ish havara?) How do they resemble and differ from BTs?

    • Excellent analysis. I’d love to see more research on those areas – both historical and contemporary. If you know of anyone who’s interested in this and is considering grad school in linguistics, let me know…

      As for #3: yes, there are many similarities between the teshuva process and “flipping out.” Of course people in that situation have much less to learn than people coming from secular or even religious non-Orthodox backgrounds. There’s some mention of this in the song “Flipping Out’ by Blue Fringe. I don’t know the answer about rashei yeshiva at YU, but I’d love to hear others’ responses to that.

  4. Hi, Professor Benor is speaking on Wednesday and not Thursday. All readers of Kavvanah are very welcome to join us! Please RSVP on F”B or via email:!/events/434255536654869/

  5. Related: I just ran an Ngram on “Hashem” (with Hashemite as a control). The result seems less like a map of sociology or linguistics and more like a graph of ArtScroll’s publishing history. See for details.

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