“Shmutz” Subverts the Traditional Ex-Orthodoxy Narrative

Shmutz written by Felicia Berliner, published by Simon and Schuster

In the canon of literature concerning Jews living unhappily in insular communities, there are typically two possible resolutions for the character: leave one's home, or don't. Felicia Berliner's debut novel Shmutz upends this notion of a binary choice. 

Enter Raizl, a soon to be nineteen-year-old Hasidic woman with an online pornography habit. Watching videos secretly on her somewhat contraband laptop (a necessity for her college classes and a source of contention in her family), a fascinated and scandalized Raizl realizes that it's not just a matter of disconnecting the Wi-Fi. Everywhere she looks, the outside world is leaking into her cognition, and it's changing her. 

The answer to stopping this influx of knowledge and resulting change? Marriage, and therapy, which her shidduch dates can never know about, lest it ruin her already jeopardized prospects because of her problematic hair color (red), her college education, and her brother's recent broken engagement. Her desire to stop watching porn (as well as her worries about never getting married, complicated by her fear of dating) lead her to therapy, where she attempts to cope with her realization that everyone around her is hiding something. There's no one in her life who isn't living at least a little bit on the margins, even her pious sister, Gitti. And now that she's seen the outside world (IRL and online), she can't just go back to the way it was. 

One of the many experiences for the reader of Shmutz is that of tension—the stakes are high at every moment for Raizl, and not just when it comes to what she's watching on her laptop. She can't so easily return to the life she had before college, before the computer; she knows too much now. "How does Hashem want her to be?" she wonders, as if she could know the answer. But that's not all. As she finds her way into different kinds of pornography, her realizations about sex, relationships, and her future become more disturbing and complex. It's not love she's witnessing, or even true pleasure. It's "men putting bodies where they want them." Pornography, then, for Raizl, is about far more than translating English terms for "cunt" and "cock" into Yiddish, or wondering if her future groom has watched porn himself, or how to hide what she now knows. It's the means by which Raizl begins to think critically about the world and her relationships. It's not just bodies acting upon each other, it's the urgency to learn and experiment that it generates within her: Look more, look beyond, look harder. 

Shmutz is cut into small sections, some as short as a page, which create the texture of Raizl and her world. Swift pacing and immersive details force the reader to slow down and spend time inside Raizl's mind as she struggles to belong to both the secular and Hassidic worlds. 

As Berliner stacks up trouble for Raizl—Will she get caught watching pornography? Will her parents find out she's taking an English class? What about the money she's squirreling away from her job? Will she get married? —, it's hard to tell how it will culminate, but it demands that readers consider their participation in the story. We have to think past our own desires and realities when it comes to what we want for Raizl. It's beyond the binary of whether she should stay or go from the Hasidic community, just as it's not as simple as whether or not she— or anyone for that matter—can purely occupy the inside or the outside of any community. It would be easy to read Shmutz with blinders on, believing that the only decision that matters is whether Raizl stays in her community, gets married, graduates, etc. The novel is a reminder that life is long—whatever Raizl ends up deciding when the book is over is a propulsion into her future. One decision can in fact be undone, and a single decision contains many dimensions and possibilities. 

The reader will wonder what happens to Raizl afterwards, and that's the point: human beings aren't static and change is perpetual, as we witness throughout the book. It challenges the binary that's seen in other work about Jews in insular communities: the question of staying or remaining, of finding the "right answer" in the choice they ultimately make. Shmutz asks that readers see themselves in Raizl, to look at our own experiences of push and pull, of experimentation, of forward and back. It's easy to write those experiences off as silly or embarrassing or as failures, but in the context of our whole lives, we might see them as adding texture, as building strength. We don't have to go from extreme to extreme to consider ourselves changed, and that realization can come as a challenge, no matter who we already think we are. 

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How to cite this page

Dubofsky, Chanel. "“Shmutz” Subverts the Traditional Ex-Orthodoxy Narrative." 13 September 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 13, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/shmutz-subverts-traditional-ex-orthodoxy-narrative>.