Rockville native and former Washington Jewish Week intern Sarah Benor has been named runner-up for this year’s prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her book, Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, earning the Choice award and $25,000. Benor and the four other nominees will be inducted into the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute at a ceremony in Jerusalem in January by the Jewish Book Council, which runs the awards.
“I found out a few weeks ago,” Benor said. “I’m looking forward to the ceremony.”
The first place prize of $100,000 was awarded to Matti Friedman for his book on the story of a thousand-year-old version of the official Hebrew Bible, The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.
Benor, who attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and Rockville High School, wrote her book as expansion of her research as a Ph.D. candidate on American Jewish languages, different from each other and from other versions like Jewish Arabic.
“I found it was a good topic for my dissertation,” she said. “I took a year for the research.”
Benor said that although she was not raised Orthodox, she had some idea of the continuum that makes up what is termed Orthodox and picked what she called a “black hat” community.
“The community where I did my research would call themselves yeshivaish modern,” Benor said.
For those who decided as adults to practice this version of Judaism, it was not just religion they had to absorb, but an entire culture of the community.
“They usually found they had a lot to learn,” Benor said.
That culture was often expressed in the Yiddish and Hebrew words and phrases casually dropped into conversation by members of the community. But while those raised in the community switched to a more standardized version of American English when speaking with those who were not part of the community, those who had joined later in life kept up the language regardless of audience.
“I was surprised to find them using the Hebrew and Yiddish outside the community,” Benor said, mentioning how phrases like Baruch Hashem (thank God) would be used even if the person they spoke to had no idea what it meant. At the same time, there was a habit of combining aspects of their new lives with other cultures.
“There were sometimes strange combinations,” Benor said. “They would have gefilte fish with Indian spices or have modern art hanging on their walls along with Jewish art.”
The way in which newer members of the community use the cultural language even more is common in immigrant and other groups adapting to a new way of living Benor said. It’s a way for those new to a culture to integrate faster than they might otherwise.
“It’s deliberate distinctiveness, hyperadaptation,” she said.
For the future, Benor said she will continue her studies in the field.
“In the long term, I want to look at how American Jews speak English and how it tells the world who they are.”