'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

'Shmutz,' a new book stirring controversy in the United States, centers around a young Jewish woman from a Hasidic community who discovers the temptations of online porn

From the cover of 'Shmutz.'
Credit: Atria Books
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

At first glance, the image on the front cover of Felicia Berliner’s novel “Shmutz” looks like nothing more than a hamantasch filled with strawberry jam. But it only takes a perusal of just the first few pages of text to realize the cover isn’t referring to Purim gift-giving. The pastry with the reddish inside is a defiant choice for someone who wants to push the envelope of Judaism and sexuality.

Even considering American culture’s obsession withOrthodox Jewish folklore, Berliner’s book will cause quite a few readers to cringe uncomfortably at the blatant sexual depictions and style that toggles so easily between the holy tongue and vulgar Yiddish.

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“I received enthusiastic reactions to the book cover from people who saw the book as both very Jewish and very provocative,” Berliner told Haaretz. “There is something about a hamantaschthat best describes the subject of the book. It is a food that is very Jewish and whose look can arouse sexual stimulation. That is more or less what happens to Raizl, the book’s heroine, whose sexuality is totally tied up with Jewish identity.”

And like the hamantasch, the book’s title has more than one meaning. Shmutz, or as it’s usually written, schmutz, is a Yiddishword whose direct translation means “stain” or “dirt.” And its deeper meaning in the Hasidic–Yiddish context is pornography.

Although Berliner stresses that this is not an autobiographical work, she refuses to reveal her real name, family status, age or any other detail that might provide a hint to her identity. Neither does she identify with any of the streams of American Judaism – secular or religious, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. “I can tell you that I am very connected with Judaism,” she says. “I do not think the traditional divisions are capable of describing this intense connection, which penetrates much deeper than do these fixed group norms.”

Credit: Publisher: Atria Books

Berliner was raised in Los Angeles and attended Haredi scholastic institutions. “My paternal grandparents observed a Haredi lifestyle and I was strongly connected to them,” she says. At some point, her parents decided to ease the religious constraints, but she opted to continue keeping Shabbat. “I very well know how it is to feel yourself an outsider and an insider at the same time,” she says. “I know how it feels to be outside your community and at the same time to sense a deep and strong connection with God, religion and spirituality.”

The plot of the book, published by Simon & Schuster, revolves around a 19-year-old woman named Raizl. Born into a large Hasidic family in Brooklyn, she discovers while surfing on a laptop the wonders – others would say the tragedies – of the world of internet pornography, just moments before looking for a shidduch (arranged match).

“It seems silly, now, that she’d once thought the computer would explain G-d, unveil a new aspect of holiness,” she writes, regarding the day Raizl Googles "G-d." She had received the computer, a rare item in a Hasidic family, for her studies at a local college.

Raizl turns to a therapist in a desperate attempt for help after the Google search failed to provide the hoped-for outcome. But, she tells her therapist, “‘there were so many pictures of men! [...] After I saw that, I had a different idea. I typed "kiss." You give the internet a word, and it gives you back pictures. So many people kissing. And men with long hair and meshiggeneh makeup.’”

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women wear face masks as they ride a public bus, in Jerusalem, September 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad

From that point on, a dizzy, erotic spin begins to take over her life. By day, she strips off the clothing of men walking past her. By night, she watches porn films beneath her blanket. And on Shabbat, she suffers from withdrawal symptoms as a result of the forced abstention that the holy day imposes upon her. Sexual images overwhelm her everyday reality. She compares every yeshiva boy offered up as a potential shidduchto the well-endowed muscular guy in the porn she just watched.

“Raizl fears she cannot be reconciled with the sex that awaits her: post-ritual bath, Friday-night sex,” Berliner writes in her book. “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 co*k-di*k into her mouth just once, he won’t be able to live without it either.”

At the height of her obsession, Raizl realizes she will never find a shidduch unless she can wean herself off her porn addiction. When she meets one potential shidduch, a yeshiva boy named Itzik, she has a difficult time bearing the intimacy between them. It doesn’t matter that rigid modesty rules and a strict ban on physical contact or any gesture that might vaguely be interpreted as sexual demarcate clear boundaries.

“Being this close to a man is terrifying, thrilling,” Berliner writes. “Suddenly she imagines Itzik naked beside her, the string bean without a shirt or pants, the outline of ribs above the long belly, a shvantz aimed at her. Her shmutzig mind! Stripping him before they’ve had a conversation.”

“Sex is not something you talk about with young Hasidic women, and if it does come up in conversation before the wedding, it remains quite vague,” Berliner explains. “Therefore, the only source Raizl has for the information she seeks to satisfy her great sexual curiosity is the now familiar world of pornography. She tries to access information that community members tell her she is forbidden from knowing. She does not have the vocabulary to speak about sex, and porn becomes her sole source of information.”

A girl watching porn hub.Credit: Jeanne Fourneau / Hans Lucas via

No avoiding the internet

One section of the book describes two gatherings that took place in 2012, one at the New York Mets’ Citi Field and the other at Arthur Ashe Stadium, both in Queens. Some 60,000 Haredim participated in these gatherings, including dozens of rabbis who called for waging war against the damage caused by the internet.

"It was spring 2012 by the goyish calendar, and the great rabbis had just banned the internet,” she writes. “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.”

Besides the sheer irony of the situation, Berliner sees this episode as stark evidence that even “in a cloistered community, one that tries with all its might to curb internet use, it is impossible to do away with it absolutely. Anyone who wishes to use the internet will always find his or her way to it.”

Essentially, she is plotting parallel lines between religion and pornography, even if pornography operates in a different manner. “The religious lifestyle is a system of symbols,” she says. “Everything – an apple, a new skirt, a good grade – is portrayed to Raizl as evidence of the presence of the hand of God, as an opportunity for prayer or blessing. In pornography, each and every object possesses a sexual meaning, every gesture is an invitation to the senses. An apple is something you eat sensually should men happen to be watching you. A skirt is meant to be something whose zipper is opened.

“Raizl understands that the world of pornography is an alternative world in which it does not matter what happens in a certain scene. It will always eventually lead to a sexual act. She learns how to read pornography, how to identify all of the hints that testify to the fact that it leads to sexual relations. In the exact same manner, the Haredi community is taught to identify the symbols and the will of God in everything that happens to you in life. This causes you to conclude that porn and the Hasidic community are two parallel systems of set symbols that are similar to one another.”

An Orthodox Jewish section of Brooklyn a few days before the start of the Passover holiday, 2019.Credit: Seth Wenig / AP

All of this raises the question of personal supervision versus general supervision, something that Raizl, like many other believing Jews, ponders quite a bit. “Raizl understands at a new level what is meant by evil inclination, the yeitzer hora, and why the rebbes and rebbetzins have always been so afraid of it,” Berliner writes. “Hashem doesn’t fight against this inner evil, or anyway doesn’t care to win. Why doesn’t Hashem stand up, pound a fist on the table, and shout, Enough! [...] Hashem has so many ways to stop her from watching porn, but chooses not to. [...] But Raizl knows in her heart that Hashem does care. Hashem is just waiting for her to call out.”

“That is her inner struggle with faith,” explains Berliner. “She’s trying to find a philosophical justification to continue watching porn while maintaining a connection with God. She also hangs on to the morning prayer that women say, ‘Who made me according to His will’ – which helps her to deal with the contention that what she is doing is improper. After all, if God made me this way, perhaps I’m really supposed to do what I am doing. Perhaps it is not as improper as I think it is.”

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