What happens when someone who’s never heard the names for private parts discovers them via internet pornography? This is the case for Raizl, the protagonist of my novel, Shmutz. In Raizl’s ultra-Orthodox home in Brooklyn, norms of modesty proscribe any open discussion of sex and even the body parts involved. Though Yiddish is Raizl’s first language, she has never heard the spectacular array of Yiddish words for sex and the relevant anatomy.
Among the many joys of writing Shmutz was using a slew of shmutzige Yiddish words. After Raizl begins college and encounters porn on her new laptop, her narrative comes to incorporate at least five languages: the English lexicon of porn, with its rhythms, intensities, and inanities; the English she hears in college; the Hasidic Yiddish she speaks in her family and community; the Hebrew of liturgy and biblical texts; and the non-Hasidic Yiddish more commonly recognized by American readers.
To these, she adds Raizlish — a mashup of all the other languages, studded with neologisms that emerge out of the clash between her many worlds. Take, for example, Raizl’s word for her imagined future husband’s penis — a “cock-dick.” For her, linking two unfamiliar words she’s encountered through porn evokes the equally unfamiliar sight of conjoined naked bodies. And when Raizl doesn’t like a term she’s heard in porn videos — “tits” — she “makes up her own, not a Yiddish word and not an English either .… Titte for one and tittes for two .… The video girl’s tittes, out in the sunlight. The color of honey.” No existing language works for Raizl when she sees tittes with a tan for the first time, breasts open to the sun and the touch of another woman.
Through the alchemy of language, Raizl makes sense not just of exposed body parts, but also of her entire online experience. Shmutzlicht, or pornlight, is Raizlish for the evanescent blue space near the screen, so close to the image it seems as if the sex scenes might actually be true. As Raizl explores her body in the zone of shmutzlicht, images transition from screen to sensation. Her travels across the internet to discover her mother-tongue, her mamaloshen, remind me of all the ways I move inside language as a writer — through story and words, and, at a more granular level, through letters, sounds, and, the feel of the words in my mouth. Language is not just visual and auditory, but also haptic in the throat, especially the soft shh and hard ch in Yiddish.
Ironically, the standardized Yiddish that many American Jewish readers associate with the “Old World” and tradition in fact connotes modernity and secularism for Raizl. But by incorporating secular Yiddish expressions for sex, she softens the shock of porn for herself. These words deliver her experience into language, bridging the gap between the traditional sounds and outlook with which she grew up and the new world to which she migrates online. In Shmutz, I didn’t italicize words in Yiddish, Raizl’s first language, in order to convey that they are natural, fluid, and unforeign to her. The title of the novel also reflects Raizl’s hybrid world. Some readers wonder why the title isn’t schmutz, which is often how the Yiddish word שמוץ is transliterated in mainstream American Jewish culture. Another option could have been shmuts, the orthography in standardized Yiddish, sometimes called “YIVO Yiddish” because it was codified by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. And the word could be spelled shmits or shmitz in transliterations ofHasidic Yiddish. Shmutz defies all spelling conventions.
Through the alchemy of language, Raizl makes sense not just of exposed body parts, but also of her entire online experience.
Raizl’s shmutzige narrative exemplifies translanguaging, described on Heinemann Blog as occurring “when a multilingual person’s full linguistic repertoire is used and honored.” Translanguaging is not only compelling for Raizl, but also effective for many immigrants, first-generation Americans, and LGBTQ people creating new linguistic signifiers for genderfluidity and non-heteronormative sexual orientations. In Yiddish: Biography of a Language, Jeffrey Shandler notes that “translanguaging is an especially apt model for the study of Yiddish, whose speakers are always in some way multilingual.” Shmutz deploys translanguaging to generate a new language. Raizl’s narrative is not only shmutzige or “dirty” in the sense of being sexually explicit or occasionally a source of shame for Raizl, but also in the sense that it is adulterated or cross-pollinated with different languages.
The translanguaging in Shmutz highlights Raizl’s both-at-onceness, her refusal to put down Yiddish even as she picks up new varieties of English. Merging her identities into one translanguage allows Raizl to escape a linguistic hierarchy that insists one language take precedence in the text. English vs. Yiddish! Higher-education English vs. porn lingo! Standardized Yiddish vs. Hasidic Yiddish! Linguistic hierarchies mirror conventional social expectations — that Raizl can be either a member of the Hasidic community or a college student, but not both, for example. Raizl refuses binary constraints on language and identity. For her, Hasidic Yiddish is primal — her first language — but she manages to shmegoogle her way through English into a new Yiddish, giving voice to the pleasures of her deeply Jewish, deeply sexual self.
Felicia Berliner lives in New York City. Shmutz is her first novel. Felicia coaches writers, artists, entrepreneurs, educators, and other change-makers. Learn more at www.feliciaberliner.com