• Review
By – May 31, 2022

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.

Discussion Questions