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.