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Shmutz

A Novel

LIST PRICE $27.00

About The Book

“Hilarious and endearing...Shmutz is a dirty book with a pure heart.” —The New York Times

In this witty, provocative, and “compulsively readable coming-of-age story” (Cosmopolitan), a young Hasidic woman on a quest to get married fears she will never find a groom because of her secret addiction to porn.

Like the other women in her ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community, Raizl expects to find a husband through an arranged marriage. Unlike the other women, Raizl has a secret.

With a hidden computer to help her complete her college degree, she falls down the slippery slope of online pornography. As Raizl dives deeper into the world of porn at night, her daytime life begins to unravel. Between combative visits with her shrink to complicated arranged dates, Raizl must balance her growing understanding of her sexuality with the expectations of the family she loves.

“Clever, subversive, juicy, and surprising” (Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies), Shmutz explores what it means to be a fully realized sexual and spiritual being caught between the traditional and modern worlds.

Excerpt

1. Daughter of Israel Daughter of Israel
The doctor’s nails are shiny, glittering around the pen she points at Raizl. “You don’t want to get married?” Dr. Podhoretz asks.

Raizl shakes her head. “I want,” she corrects. “But I can’t. Mami sent me to you because I told her and the matchmaker, no meetings. No b’show.” She’s 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 is true.

“You can’t?” The doctor’s forehead wrinkles. “Why not?”

Raizl’s thighs clench, her thick tights pressed so close they may as well be stitched together under her long wool skirt, guarding against the feeling that even under all this fabric, a part of her will be exposed. For the sake of finding a husband, though, she will say it.

“Too much watching,” Raizl answers, but the doctor doesn’t react.

“On the computer,” Raizl adds, blushing. The heat of saying it rises from her temples, from the tops of her ears.

“Wait, you mean pornography?”

Raizl nods slightly, a hint of yes. Porn, that’s what she watches. Shmutz.

“All right.” Dr. Podhoretz is nodding her head, too, as if this isn’t unusual. “Let’s talk about it. What do you like to watch?”

Like to watch? Why is the doctor asking this? Raizl looks at the ceiling, where perhaps an answer swirls overhead, and mumbles to herself, “Ich veiss nisht.” I don’t know. She’s not sure what happens to her during the nights of porn. Raizl thought Dr. Podhoretz would tell her what’s going on, and how to make it stop. So far not.

Instead, the doctor’s question reminds Raizl of a video she saw the night before, College Girls Play Games. Three girls lay on a bed on their bellies, wearing shirts but nothing below. Their bare tushes sticking up. Two of them played a silly video game, chatting and laughing, while a man shtupped the one in the middle. Weren’t they too old to be playing these games? And didn’t they see what was happening between them—didn’t they notice the shtupping? She wasn’t talking, the girl in the middle, but sometimes she reached her hand around, behind her back, and held her tush. Raizl remembers the girl’s nice manicure, her bright pink nails.

Raizl squeezes her legs together even tighter, aware that the video memory has stirred sensation down there. She smiles weakly, wondering if Dr. Podhoretz can tell.

But the doctor just tilts her head to one side and asks, “Can you say a bit more? Preferably in English. I’m sorry, my Yiddish is rather limited.”

The doctor doesn’t sound sorry, but Raizl breathes in, getting ready. It seems an impossible task. To say what she knows.

Never mind that her knowledge is entirely virtual. The only hands that have touched her body are her own. But the videos imprinted in her memory will not be erased or sealed shut. No angel will come to wipe away her knowledge, like the angel who teaches the Talmud to every infant in utero, then pinches the baby’s lips shut at birth, leaving the small hollow between nose and lip as a reminder: the child must relearn the Talmud with a new consciousness, with a free will. If only Raizl could come to the marriage bed like this—fully innocent, newborn and unknowing, as eager to learn sexual pleasure as if she had not a shred of digital experience.

It’s too late, though, for this kind of purity. Raizl sinks lower in the armchair, and the wine-colored leather creaks without mercy each time she moves. Raizl fears she cannot be reconciled with the sex that awaits her: post-ritual bath, Friday-night sex. Will she take off her special bride’s nightgown and be naked? Will she ever persuade her chussen, the husband of her future, to put his tongue down there? Based on the women Raizl’s seen in videos, she doesn’t think she can live without this, and she fears her chussen will think she’s prost, a coarse girl, with ugly wishes. Sometimes she dares to hope: if she takes her chussen’s cock-dick into her mouth just once, he won’t be able to live without it either. Of this, porn has her convinced.

If she can just stop watching porn now, perhaps it’s not too late to find a chussen. To get married.

“You can help me quit watching?” Raizl asks.

“Do you want to quit?” The doctor lowers her chin and observes Raizl over the top of her glasses, asking this question in the same even tone she uses to gather all the facts. So far, the doctor has collected the meaning of Raizl’s name (Yiddish for “rose”), age (eighteen and a half), and birth order (third of five brothers and sisters).

“Only five children? Why so few?” the doctor had asked. It pained Raizl to speak of Mami’s miscarriages, as if she were giving away family secrets. But according to Mami, even though the doctor is not from the community, she has worked with other Chasidish families. Presumably she has dealt with the rumored heartaches and tzuris: the schnapps-loving mother, the plate-smashing father, the bedwetting bar mitzvah boy. On occasion, a bride who does not bleed on her wedding night and has never been near a horse.

And now Raizl, daughter of Israel, porn addict.

“I can’t quit,” Raizl says. “Every night I’m looking at it.” The fluttering movement of Dr. Podhoretz’s pen makes Raizl forget what she’s saying.

“Every night?” prompts the doctor. “You have internet at home?”

“Yes,” Raizl says, and her toes curl inside her flat black shoes. Another secret, out now.

“Tati is a manager at the electronics store, and since he hurt his back they let him work from home sometimes. He got internet for his email. He doesn’t know I have the password, that I open the internet on my laptop, which I’m only supposed to use to study accounting. I’m in the Cohen College honors program. I have a scholarship.”

These details come out in a rush, so much easier to talk about than the videos. “Also, I work a few hours a week for a business on Forty-Seventh Street,” Raizl continues. “As soon as I finish my degree, it’s already arranged, I’ll work full-time.”

“Arranged?” asks Dr. Podhoretz. “Like a marriage?”

“I have a laptop,” Raizl says impatiently. The doctor is missing the point. “For me it’s permitted because it’s for parnussa, for livelihood. I give the money to Mami, and she saves it to pay for my wedding. And in the meantime, before I get married, the money helps pay for my brothers—in a few years they’ll work, like Tati, to earn a living, but for now they learn Torah all day.

“I have my computer where I want. School. Home. Bed.” Raizl’s cheeks flush yet again, but the doctor’s face is perfectly smooth, undisturbed. “Nobody else is allowed to have a computer at home, not my brothers, my sister, my friends,” Raizl says. “For them it’s forbidden.”

“That’s very unusual, isn’t it?” the doctor asks. “A young woman like you, going to college before getting married?”

Raizl nods. Tati almost forbade it.

Last spring, nearly a year earlier, when Raizl showed Tati the college acceptance letter, he waved it away. Deemed it profane. “Kollej is tumeh!” he said.

Mami interceded on her behalf, arguing that it would not be improper to study accounting, and Raizl had a head for numbers. She reminded Tati of the salary for an accountant. And besides, it would cost them gurnisht. Raizl had a full scholarship!

“Gurnisht mit gurnisht,” Tati said dismissively, not looking up from his Gemureh. Zero cost and zero gain.

“Please, Tati,” Raizl said.

He paused his learning, pursing his lips and gazing at Raizl. He picked up his yarmulke from the top of his head, smoothed it over his nearly bald crown and the slightly thicker fringe of hair at the back, then put it down again at the top, exactly where it had been before.

He stared without blinking, a look that was a command. “Riyyyyzl,” he pronounced her name the traditional way and drew it out long, a name that turned into a sentence. “Nisht kan science,” he said. “No biology, no monkeys. You already know where you come from. Only accounting.”

Raizl had said yes to Tati’s conditions. She didn’t mention things like “distribution requirements” and “electives.” She didn’t say that a computer was part of her scholarship. It was spring 2012 by the goyish calendar, and the great rabbis had just banned the internet. At Citi Field, with forty thousand men as witnesses, the rabbis decreed that the internet, with filters, could be used only at work. And yeshivas were not to admit any student with internet in the home. Raizl heard about it from some other students at her all-girls high school, who’d gotten the news on a livestream. The internet informed them that they were not allowed to use the internet.

Raizl was secretly grateful that her intention to use the internet could not harm her brothers’ chances for admission to yeshiva. Her older brothers, Shloimi and Moishe, had been studying for years already, and her younger brother, Yossi, who’d just celebrated his bar mitzvah, had also passed the scrutiny of the rabbis and been admitted to yeshiva.

Finally, Tati gave his consent. At the end of the summer, as the first semester of college started, Raizl got her scholarship computer. It was sleek and silver, with the shape of an apple minus one bite right in the middle of the lid. Even unplugged it felt warm to her, as if it radiated from inside her book bag. Walking home from the subway, Raizl kept her arm over her bag, afraid that on the crowded sidewalk, somehow the women pushing strollers and the men hurriedly walking by with their plastic bags could discern the outline of the laptop. Could feel its heat.

She didn’t know, until she got home, what she didn’t know: How to turn it on. How to open, and install, and use the college’s free software. How to do anything with it, besides hold it.

“What did you do?” exclaims Podhoretz. “How did you learn?”

Raizl shrugs. A librarian had helped her apply to college, and now her advisor taught her how to google, how to look for life on the internet. “You can register online,” her advisor had said. “Pick your classes, choose what you want.”

“What I want?”

“Well, within limits. As a freshman you don’t have too many options. But a few. Here,” she said, turning her monitor so Raizl could watch, and then she started typing. “W-w-w,” she said. “Dot. Cohen College. Dot. E-d-u. Textbooks are online, too. You can find them used on Amazon. And the president’s welcome to new students, that’s on YouTube.”

Everything the advisor put into the Google bar, every wish and command, was held, invisible, inside the computer. And then surfaced on the screen.

To the doctor, Raizl says, “A few things I learned from my advisor. The software I learned from YouTube videos.”

“You taught yourself. No one helped you.”

“Yah.” Raizl nods.

The doctor tilts her head to one side, taking this in. “Why did you come to me, Raizl? Why ask for help now?”

“So you can’t help?”

“I didn’t say that. But you could’ve talked to a rabbi. A rabbi’s wife. It might be easier to talk about in Yiddish.”

Raizl has a round face, but when she’s angry, her cheeks pucker inward. Her freckles get redder, along with her skin. “If I go to someone inside, I won’t get a shidduch. No match! Or I’ll get the nebbish, some pitiful boy no one else wants!”

“You haven’t told anyone—?”

“Of course not!”

“—and you’re still observant?”

Raizl glances down at her turtleneck sweater covered by a cardigan and sweeps her hand through the air over her body, a see-for-yourself gesture. Maybe because it’s the middle of winter and all the doctor’s patients wear sweaters in January, she had to ask about Raizl’s observance. But there are too many clues. A bit of Raizl’s thick, beige tights, like an extra skin, is visible from calf to ankle, but looks nothing like flesh. A seam runs like a faded, raised scar down the back of each leg. Plus long sleeves over long sleeves. Raizl hoping that the extra layers of clothing would be an antidote to porn, or at least provide armor against detection of her habit.

Even without a rumor like that, she is a difficult match, with many strikes against her. Although her oldest brother, Shloimi, got married two years ago and has a baby, her next brother, Moishe—her favorite—turned twenty and is still single. Raizl suspects she’s not the only one who has seen him with a cigarette that turned out not to be a cigarette.

And then there is her hair, a shade of coppery paprika. Raizl keeps it in a ponytail to minimize the mass of curls, to contain the bright light. Families of young men searching for a bride might avoid a redhead unless the color already runs in the family.

Mami denied it was red. “Nisht royt!” she had protested to the matchmaker. “Cinnamon,” she offered instead, pulling a strand of Raizl’s hair taut, as if to change Raizl’s prospects by making one ringlet straighter, smoother. Less red.

“Well,” Podhoretz says. “Now you’re here with me.” Her chin drops in a smiling affirmative but one eyebrow lifts, the arch of a renegade question mark. A face moving in two directions. Raizl considers the doctor’s perfectly straight, dark hair, combed into a neat bun, definitely her own and not a wig. Her creamy silk blouse, with long sleeves and a bow at the collar, could be modest but isn’t, so tight across the front. Though she wears a wedding band and a diamond ring, she is nothing like the married women Raizl knows. She has shelves lined with books, all with English titles. On the wall is a painting of golden flowers in a vase. The office smells of false citrus, oily cleaners, dust nevertheless, a cooling coffee on the side table next to the doctor’s armchair. Behind her is a desk piled with more books, and half hidden underneath are two low-heeled brown pumps, siblings of the black pair on her feet.

The doctor’s prettily manicured nails, clear polish with white tips, remind Raizl again of the girl in the video she’d seen the previous night. Just before the shtupping started, when the girl’s tush was in the air, Raizl saw everything down there: the oval of pink flesh, with shiny folds curling away from her dark loch, her hole a purple shadow. And the other loch, small and wrinkled, an even darker hole. With one hole right above the other like that, where does the shvantz go? Raizl watched the video to find out. She worried for the girl, felt relieved each time the shvantz went into the right hole, but also bothered, dissatisfied. Why not the other hole? In some videos, the man shtups tuches. How does the shvantz decide? In this video, the man’s face never appeared, so it was impossible to guess anything about what he wanted, or what he would do next. Maybe that’s why the girl held her tush, pink fingertips pointing at her shmundie. A signal to the shvantz: go here.

Raizl squirms in the chair. Says nothing. How can she explain this watching in any language? It would certainly not be easier to talk about in Yiddish. Words for what she’s seen are not said in Yiddish by anyone she knows. She’d never heard of tuches, of shmundie! Only found them on the internet, along with the other shmutzige shtupping words.

The doctor, though, is undeterred. “Let’s continue.” Again she points her pen at Raizl. “How did you start watching porn?”

“I googled.”

“Googled pornography?”

Raizl shakes her head no. “I googled ‘Der Bashefer’ to see what the internet says about the Creator, and then I googled…” She can’t mention the holy names. It was easier to type them than it is to say them.

“I googled ‘Hashem,’ too.” It seems silly, now, that she’d once thought the computer would explain G-d, unveil a new aspect of holiness. In those first weeks and months of having a computer, when she’d realized it could explain so much, she’d wanted it to reveal everything. But the virtual world could also disappoint. About Hashem, the internet offered the reasons for saying Hashem—The Name—instead of the actual divine name, and Raizl already knew this.

“Then I tried the English name, G-O-D, and there were so many pictures of men!” Although Raizl understood that the goyim worship a man, it was shocking to see those pictures. In one, a man with flowing hair and a beard, leaning from a cloud, stretched his finger out to the hand of a naked man.

“After I saw that, I had a different idea. I typed ‘kiss.’ Because the internet has pictures for everything. You give the internet a word, and it gives you back pictures. So many people kissing. And men with long hair and meshiggeneh makeup, and men kissing men, and women kissing, too.”

“You liked that,” Dr. Podhoretz says.

This might be a question, but Raizl doesn’t stop for it. “I wanted more pictures. All the pictures of what I don’t find anywhere else. I typed ‘sex’ and found videos. What comes up if you try to find sex, is sex. Not just words about sex.”

And the videos are full of English she doesn’t know, so she asks the internet to teach her Yiddish. Cock is shvantz, and pussy is shmundie. Together they shtup. The English names are so strange and ugly. Cunt? A goyishe word for a goyishe place, except that she has one, too. She googles the whole shmutzige vocabulary to find out what in Yiddish are these words. Better that pussy is shmushka, because it’s always shmooshed; and loch, the hole. Where the whole story happens, the gaansa maaseh, the deed. The internet gives her pictures and videos, and, when she needs them, words for other words. An unfamiliar Yiddish that is still her mamalushen, her mother tongue, even if Mami never spoke this way.

“Okay,” Dr. Podhoretz says. “I understand how you started watching pornography. But doesn’t anyone in your family realize you’re watching? That you’re online?”

Raizl’s hands feel damp, and she smooths them against her skirt, as if she can wipe off the guilt along with the cold sweat. Her sister, Gitti, does know. Because Raizl showed Gitti the internet.

A month ago, during Chanuka, someone had told Gitti about a music video made by the Maccabeats. How amazing and handsome they were, this group of singing Yeshiva students.

Every night of Chanuka, Gitti begged to watch them on the phone Tati keeps for his work. Every night, Tati said no, it’s not Chasidish. It’s forbidden.

“It’s just a Chanuka song,” Raizl said at dinner on the eighth night, and Tati slammed his fist so hard against the table he knocked the fanken, an entire plate of Chanuka donuts, to the floor.

“We have the Torah! And the Chanuka prayers to sing!” He stood, shouting, while Mami got a towel and cleaned the jelly globs and powdered sugar.

“For what do we need these students to make up songs? They should spend more time studying, and less singing,” he continued. “And you—” He stormed around the table to Raizl’s place, shaking his finger at her. “Don’t think because you’re at goyishe kollej and working that you’re too big to show respect!”

“Zalmen, stop!” Mami jumped up and ran toward Tati. He turned sharply from Raizl to Mami, yelling, “Shah! Don’t interrupt when I’m teaching them! You’re too soft, and this is the result!” Tati waved his hand in Raizl's direction.

“Does your father get angry like that very often?” Dr. Podhoretz asks. “Did he hit you?”

“Nein,” Raizl says. “Never hits me.” But she had felt Tati’s rage against her, and against Mami. And why? Were the Maccabeats really so bad? Why would Der Bashefer, the all-powerful, worry about a few students making music videos?

Later that night, Raizl told Gitti to come sit on her bed, and clicked on YouTube. “This is the internet,” she said to Gitti.

“There’s no filter?” Gitti looked puzzled. Raizl shrugged. She’d also been surprised at first that Tati hadn’t put a filter on, but then she had taken it as a good sign—luck or destiny—that in some strange way Der Bashefer wanted her to go to college, wanted her to have internet access.

And she gave Gitti this Chanuka gift, playing the music video at a very low volume. She didn’t think those boys were any good, but Gitti went crazy over the a cappella singers in yarmulkes. Fourteen years old, what did she know? To Gitti, each singer was more handsome than the next. “Don’t you like him?” she’d said, pointing at one. “How old do you think he is?” pointing at another. She begged to play the video again, and then a third time. “Raizy, please!” Again she wanted it, but Raizl said no, Mami will be wondering what’s going on, and anyway she had to study.

“So you showed Gitti the video. And she liked it,” Dr. Podhoretz says.

Raizl nods.

“And you like to watch videos, too,” the doctor says. “Right?”

Raizl’s mouth goes dry, her tongue pasty. “Not music videos,” she manages to say. Like Gitti, she whispers the Shema prayer at bedtime, and turns out the light. But she doesn’t go to sleep.

“No? You watch something else?”

The doctor’s question conjures in Raizl an image of herself in her bedroom. Raizl sees her body, what used to be hers without having to think about it. But now Dr. Podhoretz wants Raizl to watch herself and describe what she sees. So this is therapy, a porn of the self.

In her narrow bed, Raizl watches under the covers, the computer resting on her nightgown. The lid is open but angled forward so she can shut it quickly, and the volume is muted; the only sound is Gitti softly snoring on her matching twin bed across the room.

On-screen, the woman stretches over a much bigger bed, with her back arched and the crown of her head tipped into the pillows so Raizl has a view of her open mouth, the dark hollows of her flared nostrils. The man lifts her hips and pushes himself, sharp and fast, into her bald shmundie again and again. With no sound, Raizl has to imagine the woman’s moan. In pleasure? In pain? The woman spits on her fingers and rubs herself in a kind of rhythm with the man. Even without sound, Raizl understands something crucial has shifted: the woman’s features soften, her eyes open for a moment and then close again, as her thighs tighten around the man.

Abruptly, he stops and climbs forward over her body, points his shvantz at her lips. Smiling, she swallows him.

So this is what a woman does! Shaves her shmundie, takes a man in her mouth, eats without saying a blessing first.

Podhoretz waits, her unflinching silence like an extra set of walls around the room, holding Raizl, suffocating her. Raizl can’t manage to say a word.

“It must be hard to talk about,” Podhoretz says. “But I can help you.”

Suddenly, Raizl is scared. The doctor’s promise is seductive, but what if the therapy doesn’t work? Even if Raizl can find a way to put it all into words, she doesn’t believe in the doctor.

“You think it’s hopeless,” says Podhoretz, as if she’s read Raizl’s mind. “You’re worried about never getting married. But Raizl, you haven’t even tried to go on a date. You don’t know what will happen.” The doctor shuts her notebook. “Our time’s up for today, but I want you to consider something. Why not go on a date? You don’t have to marry the first man you meet. Some young women do, I know that, but not everyone, right?”

Raizl nods, thinking of girls who had a few matches before they found their ziveg, their destined mate.

“One date. What did you call it, a show? You could just try once. Think about it, at least, and we can discuss it next time.”

The doctor doesn’t seem to require anything further, so Raizl stands and moves slowly, uncertainly toward the door, weighed down by all she hasn’t said. In the small hallway, she puts on her coat, wraps herself in a large wool scarf, and prepares for the cold. Podhoretz wants her to agree to a b’show, but there’s so much more she didn’t tell Podhoretz.

This is what happened last night, what happens on all the nights of porn.

While she watches bodies on the screen, her own body vanishes, but as soon as the video ends, her thighs and hips are present again, heavy, her skin tight. Tightest of all at the point where her body is joined, where the blood of one half rushes to meet the blood of the other. Raizl shifts the computer off her belly and, under the covers, pulls up her nightgown. Following the woman in the video, Raizl spits on her fingers and reaches through the coarse hair to find what’s exposed online and hidden on herself. Raizl makes circles there, a strange orbit of sensation, as quiet as she can be, at the last moment biting her lips closed while her entire body shakes—a convulsion, knees drawing up nearly to her chest, aftershocks in waves. A voiceless trembling that is almost prayer.

About The Author

Felicia Berliner has an MFA from Columbia University. Shmutz is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (July 19, 2022)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982177621

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Raves and Reviews

Shmutz is a dirty book with a pure heart, though the story was wrapped up before I was ready to leave Raizl’s wonderfully horny head. Let her laptop burn forever into the night.” —The New York Times

"Transgressive and hilarious, Raizl’s story questions everything we think we know about women, desire and religious faith.” —Los Angeles Times

“In a voice evocative of Erica Jong, Felicia Berliner answers the Rothian tradition in Shmutz . . . Desire and guilt, faith and ecstasy—Berliner proves that such human categories are never diametrically opposed, but rather always enmeshed together in the throes of their own combative passion.” —The Millions

“Seriously juicy . . . A compulsively readable coming-of-age story.” —Cosmopolitan

“[A] sharply observant novel.” —Jewish Book Council

“Berliner’s memorable debut…shines in her depictions of a deeply religious life, both in its inequities and its enchantments.... This brave, eye-opening tale is full of surprises.” —Publishers Weekly

Shmutz to me, as a native Yiddish speaker, is first and foremost a love note to my Mama Lushun (Mother Tongue). This book is a beautiful creation, both as a powerful story of a community that rarely talks about life's most basic nature: love, romance, and sex—intertwined with the richness of our language.” —ABBY CHAVA STEIN, author of Becoming Eve

Shmutz is a provocative and propulsive debut. Felicia Berliner comes to this story with a deep tenderness for her characters and a keen feel for the pain that arises when desire collides with custom. Shmutz probes the desperation of being caught in systems, both religious and secular, bent on telling everybody, but especially women, who they should be and what they should want.” —SAM LIPSYTE, author of Hack

“I read this pitch-perfect debut all in one sitting, barely breathing until I’d reached the stunning, poignant conclusion. I’m in awe of Felicia Berliner’s wisdom and insight into the human condition and her virtuosic ability to turn a highly specific story into a thoroughly universal one.” —JOANNA RAKOFF, author of My Salinger Year

“Malamud meets Melissa Broder in this deeply charming, soulful novel. Not since Eve tasted the forbidden fruit has a story about curiosity and shame felt so vital. Berliner has given us a true comedy: beautifully rendered, fully earned, and suffused with love.” —ELISA ALBERT, author of Human Blues

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