Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Raizl’s life is being ruined by strangers pretending to enjoy theirs.
They’re inside her computer, which Tati, her strict, short-tempered father, very reluctantly has allowed so she can become an accountant with a college degree.
That’s unusual enough for a Hasidic Brooklyn girl. But the laptop computer has taken her into another, really forbidden world: pornography.
From her family life of holiness, she has drifted into shmutz — dirt — and it’s ruining her sleep and her grades. Having seen things she’s not supposed to see, she can’t stop looking. It’s taken over six nights a week.
Raizl is in counseling, having “told her mother she’s scared of sex — which is true. Scared she won’t ever find a husband. Also, true: Just not everything that’s true.”
She finally blurts out that last truth to elegant Dr. Podhoretz, asking: “You can help me quit watching?”
Podhoretz’s reply: “Do you want to quit?”
That’s about as far as they get in repeated sessions, although Podhoretz urges Raizl to try something new: dating.
Raizl, 18 with curly red hair, is the third of five children. A straight-A student, she contributes to the family income, working part time for a jewelry business on 47th Street.
Soon, she replaces the bookkeeper and learns it’s also a large real-estate business, all owned and run by a rabbi’s wizened widow. Recognizing Raizl’s intelligence, she gives her increasing, accountant-like responsibilities and some cash income for herself.
At Cohen College, Raizl, buttoned up and in long dresses, doesn’t fit in with the easygoing Modern Orthodox kids. By chance, she falls in with students into goth.
One striking, well-pierced woman, Sam, befriends her, evidently buying for Raizl a pair of tight jeans. The first wearing is uncomfortable. The second not, instead making her feel “tough and traif (not kosher).” Author Felicia Berliner says: “It’s strange how something that will make her unnoticeable, make her look just like everyone else, ordinary, feels so extraordinary.” Sam later leads Raizl on a very non-Hasidic beach adventure.
Shmutz, New Yorker Berliner’s first novel, is engaging and quite charming, but probably not for those who’d be offended by, well, shmutz. We get very direct descriptions of the acts Raizl is watching — not erotically but conveying the amazement we might expect from someone raised in her tightly observant world.
And while readers needn’t be Jewish to enjoy this book, it helps. Shmutz takes for granted Jewish observance and Hasidic life and attire.
Adding tam (flavor), many words and short sentences are in what my mother’s family called “speaking Jewish,” often translated. Those of us with scanty to no Ashkenazic mama loshen (mother tongue), and whose college German has leaked out, are helped by a Yiddish-English glossary.
Berliner treats these Hasidim respectfully, resisting any easy impulse to ridicule their piousness and self-imposed obligations, restrictions and clothes.
But Berliner gives us amusing incidents. In one, Raizl awakes realizing she fell asleep at the computer without saying her nighttime prayers. She wonders if she’s awake or dead and dreaming she’s awake.
Another is Raizl’s first date — a meeting at home, her parents present. It’s a sweaty, hot day, and the young man removes his hat and sets it on the dining room table separating him and Raizl.
Tati is enraged: “‘He gets undressed in front of maan tochter [my daughter]? Like a little cheder [school] boy, in his yarmulke?’” Pounding on the dining table, he yells: “‘Why is he bare like that in front of my daughter?’” Apologizing, the man flees.
Just outside campus one morning, she succumbs to the smell from a food cart. She orders a bacon and egg sandwich, “and falls instantly in love with the little puff of meaty steam when she peels back the foil.” She eats, enjoys — and isn’t struck down. “Yidden [Jews] have died not to eat pig, but she is alive!” She imagines a blessing for traif: “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who creates the fruit of the swine.”
Raizl’s mother convinces Tati to let Raizl have dates in public places. Both fizzle.
Meantime, Raizl’s addiction displaces homework. In English, she gets the first F of her life. Things go downhill from there.
I won’t give away more from this delightful tale, but here’s a hint: Raizl’s fourth date, handsome, lively, polished Moishe. You can decide if Raizl gets what she wants.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, September 2022)