Stories about people looking to escape from repressive religious communities are having a moment, no more so than stories about the ultra-religious Jewish community. Unorthodox, based on the true story of an ultra-orthodox woman running away from an arranged marriage was a hit for Netflix. In a recent Australian debut, Abomination by Ashley Goldberg, one of the main characters breaks away from his community as dark truths emerge. Into this milieu comes Felicia Berliner’s debut, Shmutz, which tries to walk a fine line of prurient and incisive with an edge of comedy.
Raizl is a slightly unusual teenage girl in an ultra-orthodox family in Brooklyn. Showing an aptitude for maths, she has been given permission to go to college and learn accounting. With this freedom also comes permission to have a computer and through this device Raizl very quickly discovers pornography. And with this discovery comes a slide into addiction, confusion and doubt about her community and her place in it. The computer is only one of a range of external forces influencing Raizl, forces which include a group of goths that she falls in with at college and her very inappropriate boss in her part time job. These forces war with the expectations on Raizl to find a husband through a series of arranged dates and conform to the norms of her community. These tensions are explored explicitly in Raizl’s sessions with an incredibly patient psychologist.
Shmutz mines a familiar vein of Jewish comic drama – the clash between the sacred and the profane. And there is plenty of profanity, softened a little by Raizl’s own Yiddish terminology as she goes further and further down the pornographic rabbit hole. And while these is some critique of the community and its hypocrisy, there is also genuine affection for the structure and certainty that belonging to that community brings to its members. Raizl’s family are far from stereotypes, giving a nuanced view of a community that is often portrayed very starkly.
While the ideas that Berliner is exploring are potent, Shmutz starts to runs out of steam when she tries to resolve the plot threads she has pulled on. While the pornography can be seen as a metaphor that opens the door for Raizl to explore other forbidden elements of the modern world, the addictive elements colour those experiences and ultimately overwhelm them and her relationships. So that Berliner, like Raizl, ends up in a bit of an impasse, having to make fairly extreme choices. As a result she does not quite stick the landing.
Shmutz is ultimately a compassionate look at a small but iconic segment of the Jewish community. Full of Yiddish (there is a glossary for those who are feeling lost), it feels realistically and somewhat truthfully observed. Raizl comes across as a young woman who readers can at least understand and feel for even while not necessarily agreeing with all of her choices.