By Michael Jacobs / mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Emory’s annual Tenenbaum Family Lecture took Jewish Atlantans inside the world of BTs and FFBs.

(Photo by Michael Jacobs)
Sarah Bunin Benor

As explained by lecturer Sarah Bunin Benor, an associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus, BTs are ba’alei teshuva, or Jews who moved to Orthodoxy from little or no observance, and FFBs are Jews who are frum from birth, or Orthodox their whole lives.

How BTs adapt to and even pass within the FFB society was the focus of Benor’s 2012 Sami Rohr Prize-winning book, “Becoming Frum,” and of her lecture of the same name Feb. 26.

Benor concentrated on the clues from language and compared the BT process to those displayed by Eliza Doolittle fitting into the upper class in “My Fair Lady,” new parents communicating with their babies and medical students adjusting to the jargon of their chosen profession.

In each case, people face an unfamiliar world with its own language and rules, and the newcomers just want to fit in.

For the newly Orthodox, Benor’s research in a community near Philadelphia in 2001-02 found two general approaches to deal with their new social circle: hyperaccommodation and deliberate distinctiveness.

Hyperaccommodation is the effort to be more Orthodox than the Orthodox to avoid doing or saying anything that falls short of the FFB standard.

Benor said the attitude shows in a couple of BT jokes:

  • How many BTs does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: You mean you can do that?
  • A BT couple moves into a new home in a frum community and meticulously unpacks and settles in. The wife takes out a spoon to eat a dairy snack, only to realize she used a meat spoon. “That’s it,” the husband says. “We’re moving.”

The point is that BTs often stand out from FFBs by going too far for fear of doing or saying something wrong and emphasizing their BT status. But going to Orthodox extremes often ends up setting them apart from FFBs anyway, Benor said.

Women, for example, will double-cover their heads by wearing hats and wigs. In speech, they’ll take the Yeshivish (yeshiva English) dialect to an extreme by adopting Yiddish grammar and phrasing, peppering their speech with “baruch HaShem,” overemphasizing the t at the end of some words and substituting a k for a g on others (“goink” vs. “going”), using so, replacing “by” with “at,” and adopting the Israeli hesitation click.

Deliberate distinctiveness involves embracing BT status while accommodating Orthodox life. The difference could be subtle, such as a blue stripe around the outer edge of a black kippah, or an aspect of the pre-BT life, such as wearing a frum skirt while continuing a snowboarding hobby, showing off an old piercing or tattoo, or incorporating Indian spices into gefilte fish.

What often happens, Benor said, is a bungee effect, a term she credited to an unnamed Emory student who suggested at a lecture 12 years ago that what she described was more like a bungee than a yo-yo, the term she had used.

A new BT will often dive right into Orthodoxy and adopt hyperaccommodation, then bounce back to deliberate distinctiveness before settling into a lifestyle matching that of surrounding FFBs.

Benor said she believes that BTs have influenced frum culture by broadening it, especially in the variety of kosher food. Where Middle Eastern and Eastern European dishes were once the norm, with Chinese thrown in for variety, now Thai, Indian and sushi are common.

At the same time, Benor said she thinks BTs are pulling the Orthodox in a more Haredi direction. She cited the example of beards in the non-Haredi community she studied near Philadelphia: Many FFB men said they started growing beards because so many BTs with beards moved in.

Still, Benor said BTs typically remain a distinct group in the Orthodox community. Marriage matches between BTs and FFBs are rare, and even the children of BTs sometimes face trouble getting into the best yeshivas and being matched with multigenerational FFBs.