Shortly after she begins a secret obsession with pornography, the heroine of Felicia Berliner’s Shmutz, Raizl, realizes how much the book’s titular subject — shmutz, the dirty videos that play on a seemingly never-ending loop on her computer’s screen — have become her new frame of reference. In an anecdote that captures both the poignance and the absurd humor of the novel, Raizl sees a woman holding a pole on the subway and immediately thinks of pole dancing. Her new “system of signs,” Raizl realizes, is a world view already familiar from her experience as an Orthodox Jew:
Every item — an apple, a new skirt, a good grade — had been presented to Raizl as evidence of the hand of G‑d […] Pornography operates in a different, but parallel, fashion. Every object is a sexual prop; every gesture is an invitation to the senses. Now an apple is something to eat sexily, in case a man is watching.
Of course, an apple isn’t just a blessing from God or a pornography prop — it’s also the brand of Raizl’s laptop, to which she has been given nearly unprecedented access so that she can complete college courses. Raizl, who has always been a remarkable student (some readers will nod with recognition over Raizl’s trajectory from Bracha Bee winner to devoted college class attendee), has begged her father to let her get an accounting degree, and he’s agreed on the condition that Raizl help financially support her brothers’ Torah study. Simultaneously, Raizl is preparing for marriage by going on dates with men a matchmaker insists are perfect fits. But how can she find a match when she’s distracted by her addiction to pornography, a force stronger than even the Hasidic matchmaking system? And more than that, how can she ever find a genuine connection with a man when she now has access to an ultimate truth her potential groom has never known: her own sexual desires and pleasure?
Raizl’s ability to exist in dualities, resisting easy answers and easy characterizations, is almost Talmudic in its rigor. In particularly inspired scenes at her college, Raizl becomes friends with a group of goths (after all, they too dress in exclusively black clothing). As they share Raizl’s leftover babka and cholent, she realizes that her new friends think about the way they dress even more than she does. This curiosity and eagerness to take in the world around her, while still allowing for the possibility that her ultimate place may very well be within the community she has always known, is what makes Raizl such a compelling narrator. Berliner’s uncompromising choice to fill Shmutz with Yiddish vernacular also plants the reader firmly in Raizl’s perspective. Raizl may not be in control of her pornography habit, or the money she makes at her job in the diamond district, or even — depending on the reader’s perspective, and Berliner’s generous prose allows for as many dualities in the reader as she fosters in her narrator — the way religion influences the way she moves through the world. But she is in control of her narrative.
Ultimately, of course, an apple can’t just be an apple — for Raizl, or anyone else. There are a myriad of possibilities for meaning, so many of them outlined in Berliner’s sharply observant novel. Nevertheless, Raizl is given the option that so many women — Hasidic or otherwise — are often denied: the ability to choose that meaning for herself.
Adina Applebaum is a Program Associate at the Whiting Foundation. She lives in New York.