Sarah Bunin Benor: Judaism Unbound Episode 169 - Jewish Language

Sarah Bunin Benor, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of the award winning book Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language of Orthodox Judaism, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about Jewish languages, and the deeper discourses revealed through dialect. [1]

Sarah Bunin Benor

Sarah Bunin Benor

(00:01 – 20:13): The episode begins with Sarah Bunin Benor describing her book, Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language of Orthodox Judaism [2] and the process of her ethnographic research on American Orthodox communities. She discusses how language marks people as “in” or “out” of a particular group, marking an identity through words and pronunciation. While some newcomers to Orthodoxy perform “hyperacommodation” and try intensely to adopt the language of their chosen community, others perform “deliberate distinctiveness”, trying to distinguish themselves from a community of people who are ‘Frum From Birth.’ They do this in a variety of ways, ranging from speech, to dress, to food (for example, gefilte fish with curry and turmeric). [3] Dan raises a question regarding linguistic “authenticity”, asking about the process through which certain words or expression that began as non-native to Jewish communities gains the perception that is “authentic” enough to be part of the in-language. Bunin Benor describes the history of the word bentsch -- a verb referring to the recitation of the blessing after a meal – which has traveled between Jewish tongues over centuries. [4] Bunin Benor emphasizes that claims of linguistic authenticity often express something deeper; she explains that Jewish communities which praise one pronunciation as correct while criticizing other pronunciations engage in “socio-linguistic projection,” making broader statements about how Jews should behave.

(20:14-  35:30): Lex notes a common Hebraic linguistic feud: the sound of the letter “ת” (Tav/Sav), which is pronounced differently by many communities. While Sefardi (Spanish and some Middle-Eastern) communities use a “T” sound for this letter, Ashkenazi (descended from Eastern and Central Europe) communities will use an “S”. Yet in 2019, a wide swath of Reform and Conservative American synagogues use the Sefardi pronunciation, despite these communities having largely Ashkenazi heritage. Bunin Benor explains how modern Israeli Hebrew (which, in an attempt to modernize, historically rejected Ashkenazi pronunciations) influenced American Hebrew as synagogues began to adopt Zionism. Bunin Benor posits that when people are critical of language, they’re generally critiquing — in particular — ways in which languages change. Jews have always had multiple Hebrews, diversified by geography and time, background and class, and controversy over the “correct” Jewish language is an old phenomenon. Bunin Benor pivots to discuss her research on usages of Hebrew at American Jewish Summer camps, [5] explaining that in these settings, meanings are often changed (rather than lost) in translation.

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(35:31 – 53:15): Lex raises the question: Can any language be a Jewish language? [6] Bunin Benor enthusiastically responds “yes” -- wherever Jews have written and lived, Jews have used colloquial languages, different from their non-Jewish neighbors. She lists distinctive features, intonations, and mannerisms like “overlapping” (distinct from interrupting) in conversation that are unique to Jewish ways of speaking in America. [7] Bunin Benor says that Jews have always been multilingual, writing in one language and thinking in another, attuned to multiple meanings across languages. She calls Jews “the People of the Pun,” having engaged in wordplay for thousands of years, even creating rituals based in quip; for example, eating a fish head, carrots, or cabbage during Rosh Hashana. She affirms that the American Jewish tendency to make puns and the fusion of languages is a continuation of a much longer, wider tradition of Jewish wordplay. Bunin Benor closes by reflecting on the nature of linguistics. Language isn’t just language -- it’s the site where many issues and tensions reveal themselves. When people talk about language, she explains, they’re really expressing how they feel people are or should be, what it means to be human or in a particular community. Whether it’s the vocabulary of newly Orthodox Jews, the Hebrew(s) of American Jewish summer camps, or tensions over rabbis translating on the bima, all of these language differences express deeper questions about how Jews should be orienting and engaging with the broader world and the Judaism itself. [8] [9]

[1] Check out Sarah Bunin Benor’s website for the book, the Journal of Jewish Languages she founded and co-edits, and her Disney, racism, and linguistics blog

[2] You can purchase Sarah Bunin Benor’s book, Becoming Frum, here.

[3] Read up on hyperaccomodation and deliberate distinctiveness in this news article, featuring Bunin Benor.

[4] Interested in uncovering more Hebrew and Jewish etymologies? There’s a blog all about that!

[5] Learn more about this fascinating study on Hebrew in Jewish Camps in a blog post written by Bunin Benor. You can also download a powerpoint presentation about the study, created for the Foundation for Jewish Camp by clicking here.

[6] For more from Lex on this question, see “Every Language is a Jewish Language,” which he wrote in 2017 for Jewish Currents.

[7] Deborah Tannen is one of the leading experts in “overlapping” as a Jewish linguistic pattern. Read this article about “overlapping” in Jewish conversation, then check out some fascinating works by Deborah Tannen here.

[8] If you’re interested in other Judaism Unbound episodes about Jewish languages, listen to our recent Daniel Matt episode which features conversation about Aramaic, Hebrew — and how well Rabbis even knew Hebrew.

[9] If you’re interested in looking deeper at the idea of “Standard Language Ideology,” see Rosina Lippi-Green’s piece on the subject, cited by many scholars since its publication in 1994.