Book Review

Shmutz

Shmutz

  • Author: Felicia Berliner
  • Genre: General Fiction
  • Publication Date: July 19, 2022
  • Publisher: Atria Books

Thank you to NetGalley and Atria Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In this witty, provocative, and unputdownable debut novel 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 Brooklyn Hasidic 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 more conventional expectations of the family she loves.

A singular, stirring, and compulsively readable debut novel, Shmutz explores what it means to be a fully realized sexual and spiritual being caught between the traditional and modern worlds. 

I’ve been seeing this book all over Jewish Instagram accounts, and since it sounded really intriguing, I added it to my TBR instantly. When I was approved for an ARC, it was one of the books I was most looking forward to reading. However, it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting.

For people who aren’t as familiar with Judaism, let me explain. Much like other religions, there are different sects within Judaism. There are reform Jews and conservative Jews, and these are the Jewish people you most likely come into contact with and never even realize that they’re Jewish. Then there are the orthodox Jews, who are visibly Jewish. They wear modest clothing—long skirts, shirts with long sleeves and high necks, and wigs for the women, men with beards and yarmulkes in suits and black jackets, often in wide brimmed felt hats. Orthodox Jews are further broken down into individual groups, and Hasidic are among the ultra-orthodox, where the men wear payos (the long, curled sidelocks), and they typically don’t interact with people outside their own communities, and commonly speak Yiddish as a first language, English as a second or third. This is the type of community that is being written about.

My own family falls in between conservative and orthodox. I’ve always grown up keeping kosher, hearing Yiddish spoken fluently in the home, attending orthodox services, but not adhering to all of the orthodox practices. So while my own exposure to ultra-orthodox life is minimal, I was hoping for some positive Jewish representation within this community, since it’s sadly lacking in books and shows. This wasn’t what I got here.

I was sold on the stunning and attention-grabbing cover, with the strategically placed hamentaschen, the ubiquitous Purim treat. But I guess I can’t always judge a book by it’s cover. There were some things that I did enjoy, but the negative aspects of this story definitely outweighed the positives for me in this case.

One of the best parts of this book was Raizl’s inner struggle between her faith and religion and her own burgeoning desires. As she’s given access to an entire world’s worth of information through her forbidden computer, she also discovers the dark side of this knowledge, through an addiction that she quickly develops to pornography. In her community, she doesn’t have anyone that she can talk to and ask questions, and she’s limited in who she can turn to, and winds up discussing this with her therapist. But much of the work is left to Raizl herself, and I loved watching her wrestle with her desire and her faith.

I did love seeing all the Yiddish on the page. Since I grew up hearing it, so much of it was familiar to me. While the dialect is slightly different from the one I’m familiar with, it’s close enough that I didn’t have to refer to the glossary to understand, and there’s a lot that’s easy to pick up simply from context. But so few books use Yiddish to this extent, that it felt comforting to see. 

However, the author didn’t bring to light any of the positive aspects of the lifestyle that Raizl has been brought up in. In a community that is so insulated, everyone is interconnected, everyone knows everyone else, everyone works together to make things happen and function smoothly. There is one scene in the book where they discuss how someone needs a baby monitor, and that no one has to buy anything new, since there are always hand-me-downs. This would be a great example of how the community comes together to support each other, but instead, all we see is that the people are cold and unfeeling towards each other. There doesn’t seem to be any love or even feeling amongst the members of Raizl’s family, and all of the relationships seem superficial. Even the ones that Raizl develops outside of her community never seem to go beyond the surface, and the characters other than Raizl always felt flat. Even the therapist didn’t seem to do anything, and it’s a poor imitation of what actually happens in therapy.

The story is uncomfortable, awkward, and at times, heartbreakingly sad. Raizl is a really smart girl who is trapped in a situation, and from the start of the book right until the end, it felt like a claustrophobic read. While it’s billed as unputdownable, I actually found it to be the opposite. I would put it down often, finding any excuse not to continue reading, even going as far as to do my least favorite chores to find an excuse to put off reading the next chapter, despite wanting to finish it as fast as possible so that I could move on to the next book. Ultimately, I finished it because I didn’t want to give up on the story, hoping that the ending would provide a satisfactory resolution, but when the last chapter finished, I was confused and actually expected there to be another chapter. It simply felt unfinished. And it definitely gave me icky vibes about reading something so overwhelmingly negative about a community that is already portrayed so negatively in the few situations where they are portrayed in books or shows (think Unorthodox on Netflix), while I’m sure the majority of people within this community could easily rattle off a laundry list of things that they love about being in their community and why they wouldn’t want to change their life. 

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s