Talking Like That

Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism
by Sarah Bunin Benor
Rutgers University Press, 288 pp., $27.95


n Becoming Frum, linguist Sarah Bunin Benor quotes a 9-year-old Orthodox child saying of ba’alei teshuvah (Jews who have adopted traditional halakhic observance as adults), “Their voice sounds weird, like not a Jewish voice.” We assume that by “voice,” the child refers to language rather than vocal timbre, and Benor examines the journey that “BTs” make from evoking judgments of that kind from Orthodox children to comfortably using the words and expressions that constitute Orthodox Jewish English.

Illustration by Arlen Schumer.

                  Illustration by Arlen Schumer.

This article is locked

Subscribe now for immediate and unlimited access to Web + Print + App + Archive
  • Already a subscriber? Log in to continue reading.
  • Not quite ready to subscribe? Register now for your choice of 3 FREE articles per quarter.
  • Already a registered user? Log in here.

About the Author

John McWhorter is an associate professor at Columbia University where he teaches linguistics and Western civilization. He is a contributing editor for The New Republic and is the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (Harper Perennial) and, most recently, What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be) (Gotham).


gwhepner on June 20, 2013 at 8:28 pm

“He mekaraved me,” are words BTs might choose to say,
whereas “He was mekarev me,” is how an FFB
would say it, in their English-Jewish corny koine way
two sides of coins in a fountain where all speech is free.

Taking it away from them would be extremely thievish:
the way they speak proves to both categories that they are Jewish.
Despite a hilluk of a difference they both speak yeshivish,
in a mamme loshen that’s both second-hand and newish.

[email protected]
Eileen on June 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm
What about the FFB's [frum-from-birth's] who have American parents and feel perfectly natural speaking perfect English? We do exist, and to adopt "yeshiva loshon" would be an affectation for us. Though when speaking to my Hasidic (excuse me, Chassidishe) friends, I do let slip in a wayward "by" - using proper Yiddish/German syntax, as in "she stayed by me."
    Adam on July 8, 2013 at 10:06 am
    Doesn't that seem similarly like cataloguing a commonplace linguistic phenomenon? How would that be different than American Latinos speaking "Spanglish" in the house and a more standardized American English in other settings? I would even venture to say that people switch registers of speech more than one might realize.
daized79 on July 17, 2013 at 1:55 pm
First, in response to the article, I don't know that the eight-year-old meant language. BTs do often have a different timbre. Partly because it takes so long to get comfortable in their new skin (and you can hear an excitement when they use the "new" loan words they have learned, even years later), and partly because they didn't grow up with the intonation and style of davening and learning g'mara (of course even the way I say learning instead of studying is a Yiddishism).

What's interesting to me is when I meet BTs who have blended so well that I can't tell anymore, and makes me ponder why there are so many that never fully acclimate. Is that choice? Perhaps they don't want to completely lose their old identity and take some pride in it (understandable).
daized79 on July 17, 2013 at 2:05 pm

These FFBs that Benor describes ARE completely comfortable in English. We're not talking about New Squarers or Monroevians here. But, they use different language at the shabat table. I do sprinkle some of my Jew-lingo into speech with my coworkers, but it's a choice and I could turn it off if I wanted.

But even Benor was not really speaking about Yeshivish people who can literally get incomprehensible to me with their (over)use of Yiddish. So there will be a huge difference between people who go to for four or more years of yeshiva, or who are taught by those who did, marry those who did, or are the sons and daughters of those who did, and those who have remained shomer tora umitsvot (FFB) but without that same personal background. There will also be a difference between those who consider themselves Modern Orthodox and those who do not. But even the Modern Orthodox I know use Jew-lingo when speaking to me. It just may have more hard T's than when I speak naturally. As to "by"--as a personal note--I grew up in Milwaukee where everyone said that they were "staying by someone else's house" etc. You see, it's not just Yiddish, but also German. And Milwaukee has a huge German population.

Want to post a comment? Please register or log in.

Most Read

What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot

When Fox News' Lauren Green asked Reza. . .

Conservative Judaism: A Requiem

In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews. . .

Editors' Picks

The Banality of Evil: The Demise of a Legend

As The New York Times noted, Bettina. . .

The Hunter

James Salter has been justly celebrated. . .

Next Year on the Rhine

Like Newport, Rhode Island, Worms,. . .

In The Next JRB

  • Ruth R. Wisse on Mendele Mokher Seforim
  • Matt Goldish on Newton's Kabbalah
  • Ronald and Allis Radosh on Jewish Anarchists
  • And more...
Copyright © 2018 Jewish Review of Books. All Rights Reserved. | Site by W&B