Felicia Berliner

July 20, 2022 
The following is from Felicia Berliner's Shmutz, a 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.. Berliner has an MFA from Columbia University.

Finally on the subway, Raizl fishes her sidder out of her purse.  She holds the pocket-size prayerbook with its ornate silver cover like an amulet or shield in front of her face, open to the pages of psalms though she knows the words by heart.

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Psalms don’t stop the infiltration of porn.

The woman standing in front of Raizl, is she about to dance?  Her grip on the metal pole is suggestive.  In a minute she will twist a knee around the slim silver rod.  Perhaps she will unbutton the business-like blouse visible at her neck, where she has unzipped her down jacket, the heat of the subway car an invitation to further heat, to a physical encounter with a seeming stranger.  Raizl lives now in a system of signs, which, weirdly, seems familiar to her.  Religious life is also a system of signs.  Every item—an apple, a new skirt, a good grade—had been presented to Raizl as evidence of the hand of G-d.  As an opportunity for prayer or blessing. If she tripped and fell, that too was a warning from Der Bashefer, The Creator.  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, a red mouth a red pout; a skirt is there to unzip.

Had sex always been behind everything, and she just hadn’t seen it?  The way people who aren’t religious don’t see the G-d in everything.  The way for some people an apple is just an apple, a subway pole just a thing to grab when the brakes screech.


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As Raizl walks up Lexington Avenue toward campus, her therapist’s words play in her mind: she doesn’t fit in—not in Manhattan, not in Brooklyn.  Not in college, not in her community.  Porn, though, has taken her in.  Porn welcomes her; porn wants her.  Women with bodies of all shapes and sizes, living in their bare skin.  Smiling at Raizl, happy to have her there.

She hunts in her memory for a time when she did fit in, wishing she could prove Dr. Podhoretz wrong—you’re wrong!  But the doctor has gleaned that porn is not all that makes Raizl an outsider.

In its usual spot in front of the main campus doors, a food cart fills the sidewalk with a smell that taunts her.  Every day she slows her pace just a bit to breathe it in: a distant cousin of pastrami but warmer and richer, spicier, the dream of a deli roll just out of the oven, a scent so dense it fills Raizl’s nose and throat.

Today she gets on the line behind the other students in their jeans and Cohen College sweatshirts, and when her turn comes, she points inside the cart’s little window toward the sizzling strips of meat.

“Baconegg?” the man asks.

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“Baiknandegg,” she repeats.  Hoping it doesn’t sound Yiddish.

Raizl doesn’t wait to get to campus, opens the paper bag and falls instantly in love with the little puff of meaty steam when she peels back the foil.  She takes a bite and licks her lips for the salt, and Der Bashefer doesn’t strike her down, so she swallows to make room in her mouth for more. The egg soft, almost custardy, around the crisp chazzer.  She’s not supposed to know what this is, but Google showed her: a pinkish animal with a pushed-in nose and big ears.  Yidden have died not to eat pig, but she is alive!  The sandwich is peppery and buttery and the flavor is not just in her mouth but her nose and ears, too, seeping from her throat and belly into every part of her body, consuming her as she eats.

Too quickly, it’s gone. An empty feeling overtakes the fullness, with the nonkosher food finished and no customary way to give thanks at the end of the meal. Of course, she didn’t make a blessing before she ate either. If only there were a blessing for traif: Blessed are You, Hashem, Who creates the fruit of the swine.  Who brings forth bacon from the pig.

At the glass doors to school, pulling out her ID, she searches in desperation for an extra napkin, convinced that grease on her chin will give her away.  She rummages in her bag, fingering first some extra sanitary pads and then her sidder, the miniature prayerbook, which she quickly drops back to the bottom of her purse.


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Later, after class, Raizl goes to the food court where students eat burgers and fries and vending machine lunches.  Raizl always brings her own kosher lunch from home, and scans the tables for an empty spot where she can sit with her thermos, and open a book, too.  She’s putting her backpack down in a perfect place, in the far corner of the room, when she realizes a girl all in black, from her hair to her sweater to her shoes with enormous black soles, is staring at her.  Her skirt is long and black—even longer than Raizl’s.

Raizl takes a deep breath and nods at her. “I can sit here?” she asks.

“It’s a free country,” says another girl.  Or is he a boy?  Everyone is wearing black mascara.

Raizl balances on the edge of the empty chair, too uncomfortable to take out her lunch and too self-conscious to leave.

“Why are you wearing everything black?” Raizl asks, suddenly feeling bold.

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“How sweet,” the girl says to the others, rolling her eyes.  “She doesn’t know goth.” Then she turns back to Raizl. “Amiright?”

Raizl nods, though she’s not sure what she’s agreeing to.  Is this some new word for “goyta”?  Does a goyta know she’s a goyta?  But why would a girl who’s not Jewish call herself this?

“Black clothes—that’s one part of it.  How we find each other,” the girl says.  “Just like you find your people.” She points at Raizl’s long dark skirt.

“I’m not goyta, I’m Chasidish,” Raizl says, and they all laugh, and Raizl’s cheeks redden.

“We know about you,” the goyta-goth says.  “Your people rule in Brooklyn.  Plus Oprah had Hasidim on her show.  Oprah loves your people.”

Raizl keeps quiet.  She’s not going to ask what is Oprah and her show.

“I’m Sam,” the goyta-goth says.  “That’s Spark and Kurt,” she points across the table.

They both grunt.  Introductions are always a worry because Raizl doesn’t shake hands with boys.  But instead of a handshake they both make a signal with their fingers, and Raizl doesn’t have to touch them at all; it’s not even a choice.

Kurt and Spark have a phone on the table between them. One white wire goes to Spark’s ear, one goes to Kurt’s.  Their bodies pulse and their shoulders lean together, as if they are holding each other up.

Sam hoists a large, worn satchel onto the table.  The bag is covered in metal chains and has a large silver cross at the latch, and Raizl instinctively recoils.  Sam doesn’t notice this, digging intently through the bag but not finding what she needs.  “Damn I’m hungry,” Sam says.

Raizl unpacks her lunch and offers Sam her spoon.

“What is this, anyway?” Sam points at the thermos.

“Chulent,” Raizl says.

Turns out goyta-goths love chulent.

“Jew-chili,” Spark says.

“Look at those potatoes.  It’s Irish Jew-stew,” says Kurt.

Sam keeps going with Raizl’s stainless steel spoon from home.  The others find plastic and fork in.

“What kind of sausage is this?” asks Kurt.

Raizl doesn’t know about sausage.  Only Mami’s kishke: flour and fat, pepper and paprika.

They eat bite after bite of the tender, falling-apart flanken meat, the beans and barley plump and shining after cooking so long with the marrow bones, the golden potatoes dense with the flavors of onion and garlic and paprika.

“Aren’t you going to have some?” Sam asks.

Raizl nods but isn’t sure.  Is she allowed to eat with them?  Can she make the blessing with them?  Is this the same as praying on the subway, an anonymous davener surrounded by goyim?  They will all see her lips move, maybe think she’s crazy, if she makes the bruche before she eats.

So Raizl just watches, taking them in as they take in her lunch.  Sam wears a heavy chain with keys on it.  Black liner circles her eyes, but they are still a soft brown, the hunger showing in them as she eats Raizl’s food.  Her hair, dyed a fierce blue-black, falls straight on one side, is shaved short on the other.  The freckles rising through the white powder on her cheeks make her look more innocent than ghostly.

There is a stud through the outside of Sam’s left nostril and a loop through the center cartilage.  More metal loops through her eyebrow, like a form of hair stitched there as reinforcements after a severe plucking.  When Sam opens her mouth for another bite of chulent, Raizl can see that her tongue, too is pierced.

In Raizl’s world, the only piercing is through the middle of the earlobe, for a diamond or a pearl.

“It hurts?” Raizl points at the stud in Sam’s cheek.

“Nah,” Sam says.  “Even if it does, it’s not a problem.  Life hurts.”  For Sam, pain is not an issue.  Maybe it’s the goal.  “God was pierced,” she says, looking thoughtfully at Raizl.

“You believe in–?”  Raizl can’t say Yoyzl, because Sam won’t understand that, but she can’t bring herself to say the other name, forbidden.

“Jesus?  Sure,” Sam says. “I don’t have a problem with Jesus.”  And then, “Want me to pierce you?”

“You do that for me?”

“Yeah, babe.  Unless you want a clit piercing,” she adds.  “Then you need a total pro.”

Raizl has seen those piercings—online.

Growing up, Raizl never had a word for the place at the center of her body other than there.  Dortn.  Or that place.  Yene platz. A whole region sending out smells and liquids, with no name.  Online, there are names upon names, places upon places.  The cunt has also the clit.  And the fleshy bead of the clit has, sometimes, a metal bead.

“How much will it hurt,” Raizl asks, trying not to let her voice waver.

“Just a pinch,” Sam says, nonchalantly. “Feels gooooood after.  Totally worth it.”

“Oy.” It pops out of Raizl’s mouth, and Sam laughs.

“You still haven’t said your name, oy-girl.”

“Raizl,” she says.

Sam gives Raizl another, more intense scan.  “Wow. That’s a very goth name.”

“It is?” Raizl says, bewildered.

“Hell yeah.  Razor?  You’re a walking bloodbath.”

Raizl doesn’t bother correcting her.

Raizl accepts her new name, and Sam accepts her—her long skirts and long sleeves, her absolute difference from all the other students.

After that, Raizl often joins Sam and her friends in the food court, where they don’t eat anything, or at least don’t buy anything, because they don’t have the money or occasionally because someone brought Ritalin for lunch, and Raizl because she has her kosher food from home.

“Hey, Razor, you got any leftovers today?”

Her new friends accept her food as kindness, and they don’t ask questions when, sometimes, Raizl falls asleep with her head on the cafeteria table.  They put on black eye makeup in the bathroom when they get to school, and take it off before they go home.  They understand the exhaustion of not fitting in.


Excerpted from the novel SHMUTZ by Felicia Berliner. Copyright 2022 by Felicia Berliner. From Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Reprinted by permission. Find more of Felicia Berliner’s writing at www.feliciaberliner.com.

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