Off the Shelf: Novels of dissatisfaction

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Dissatisfaction: That word partly summarized the feelings of the main characters in Elisa Albert’s “Human Blues” (Avid Readers Press) and Felicia Berliner’s “Shmutz” (Atria Books), although the cause of that emotion in each woman is radically different. In fact, their lives might at first seem to have nothing in common: Albert’s Aviva is a singer-songwriter on the verge of fame who desperately desires a child, while Berliner’s Raizl, who lives in an ultra-Orthodox community, finds her life unraveling due to a secret desire. Both are struggling with a need that threatens to subsume their lives.

In “Human Blues,” Aviva, who is in her late 30s, is obsessed with the desire to become pregnant. Her husband supports her desire, although he is far more laid back about whether or not they have children. Aviva’s emotional ups and downs are not helped by the fact that almost everyone she knows seems to either be pregnant or just had a child. Her fixation on social media adds to the problem because she can’t stop tormenting herself by looking at other people’s happy family lives. Her mother is pressuring her to use the new technologies available to become pregnant, but Aviva hesitates because she believes those techniques might negatively affect those children in the future. Her distrust of the medical profession is understandable, but, on the other hand, she willingly uses alternative treatments that also have not been tested.

In addition to the stress of trying to get pregnant, Aviva is also dealing with being on tour and learning to adjust to her newly found fame. Aviva is ambivalent about her success. On the one hand, she just wants to make music that speaks to her, but knowing that her music can make a difference in people’s lives resonates with her. Throughout the book, Aviva rants and raves (with a great deal of profanity) over and over again about music, pregnancy and life in general. She does not always come across as a sympathetic character, partly because she is so conflicted about everything in her life and partly because she’s tempted to stray from her marriage for no real reason other than sexual attraction. However, there is one thing – or rather, one person – she does love with her whole heart: Amy Winehouse, another Jewish singer/songwriter whose life and death both inspires and frightens her. Can Aviva learn something from Winehouse that will help her find meaning in her own life?

“Human Blues” was difficult to read at times because it was tempting to give up on Aviva. However, that challenge is ultimately what made the work interesting to read. How do readers care for someone whose behavior they may find unpleasant and, at times, alienating? The novel may speak more to those who are either experiencing problems with fertility or who are fans of Winehouse’s music. That’s not to say others can’t enjoy this work, but it may not have the same emotional impact. 

Age and circumstance may also play into how readers react to “Shmutz.” Eighteen-year-old Raizl’s problem is far different from that of most novels featuring ultra-Orthodox women who feel they don’t fit into their community. Although Raizl’s desire to attend college in itself creates problems because her father doesn’t believe in the need for advanced education for women, Raizl’s specific problem is not common. Instead of using the computer the college gave her to do her school work, Raizl is using it to watch pornography. In fact, she’s become addicted to it, so much so that her college career is in jeopardy. Plus, Raizl is now fearful about getting married because her newly discovered sexual desires don’t seem to fit within her community’s standards as she understands them. To help her overcome her fear of dating, her mother sends her to a psychiatrist. Although Raizl begins to meet some appropriate matches, the question remains whether she will be able to free herself from her addiction, or find a way to live with it and still be part of her community.

“Shmutz” also explores Raizl’s feelings of alienation and her fears that she will no longer fit in the religious or secular world. Part of her longs to join the wider world, while another part understands and appreciates the community in which she lives. The novel offers readers an opportunity to debate whether having a computer is what has caused Raizl’s problems, or whether it’s the lack of understanding about sexuality in the ultra-Orthodox world to which she belongs – one that doesn’t discuss sexuality in a way Raizl finds meaningful.