"How can you be queer and Orthodox at the same time?"—Israel, a gay, 56-year-old, formerly Orthodox Jew, voicing his dilemma
"It took six years of criss-crossing the globe trying to find anyone who would come forward and speak…Who wanted to risk everything in their life for the sake of a movie that would only bring unto them harm?"—Filmmaker Sandi Simcha Dubowski discussing the difficulty in making this documentary
First, a brief disclosure: (1) I am a gay man; (2) I was raised in the Catholic Church, but I do not currently belong to any religious faith; (3) I have tried to educate myself about Judaism for this review, but I apologize up front for any errors or misrepresentations that may have crept in.
Religion and homosexuality have never been comfortable bedfellows, but in the latter part of the 20th century, American gays and lesbians have been welcomed—or at least tolerated—in a number of Christian and Jewish denominations. This despite the fact that some Biblical passages either explicitly or implicitly forbid certain homosexual behaviors. The more conservative denominations have held firm, and forced devout gay and lesbian people to either renounce (or hide) their sexual preference, or leave the church.
Modern Judaism is broken down into four broad movements: Orthodox (including Hasidism), Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform. The Conservative movement will not allow ordination or marriage of gay and lesbians, but does not exclude them from other aspects of religious life. Both the Reconstructionist and Reform movements do not restrict gays and lesbian from becoming rabbis, and also sanction marriages of these individuals (in many cases). The Orthodox tradition has generally taken the proscriptions of the Torah as immutable, and has considered homosexual acts an abomination. Openly gay and lesbian people have traditionally not been welcome in Orthodox synagogues and yeshivas (religious schools).
Hasidism is a conservative mystical tradition within Orthodox Judaism that dates to the 1700s. Hasidic men are often recognized by their appearance (long coats, black hats, beards, and sidelocks—long curls of hair worn in front of the ears). Hasidic Jews tend to live in insular communities. One of the largest communities of Hasidism (the Lubavitch court) is located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Based on a passage in Deuteronomy 12:3, Orthodox Jews believe that it is a sin to utter or write the full name of God, thus, in English, it is often written G-d.
Sandi Simcha Dubowski, a young, gay, male, Jewish filmmaker, decided to make a documentary that explored the relationship of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews to the conservative traditions they embrace. New Yorker Films has recently released this 2001 film, entitled Trembling Before G-d, on DVD.
Facts of the Case
The documentary tells the personal stories of a number of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, through interviews (often disguising the face or voice of the individual), and footage of them interacting in their communities. Some of the subjects featured include:
David, a gay Orthodox Jew living in Los Angeles, has run the gamut of rabbis and psychotherapists in an attempt to overcome his same-sex feelings. He is about to confront the Rabbi who told him to seek psychotherapy 20 years ago.
"Malka" and "Leah" are Orthodox Jews living in Miami who have been together for 10 years. They work hard to keep a Kosher home despite having no real role models.
Israel, a 58-year-old gay man from Brooklyn, left behind his Hasidic roots long ago. He and his partner have recently celebrated 25 years together. He still harbors a great deal of anger toward his family (including his 97-year-old father), which shunned him. He has decided to make one final attempt at reconciliation with his aged father.
"Devorah" is a lesbian living in an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel. Though she is married and has children, she considers her marriage "a lie," and feels she can only tolerate it by taking anti-depressants.
Mark, a Hasidic gay man from London, discovered he was gay at age 15. He was expelled from several Yeshivas because of gay activity, and is now HIV-positive. After seven years away, he hopes to re-establish his ties to Hasidim.
Sandi Simcha Dubowski has created a fairly balanced, but sympathetic account, of the dilemma faced by Orthodox gays and lesbians. Balance is achieved at the outset, with the crucial quotation from Leviticus 20:13: "A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is on them." A similar passage is quoted from the Shulchan Aruch (a book of Jewish religious law, written in the 1560s), denouncing lesbian sex. A Hasidic protestor in New York City says, "everyone knows that if you legalize [homosexuality]…they're going to be sweeping into our buildings, and they're going to be taking our children, because the are immoral people, these people."
In addition to first-hand accounts from Orthodox gays and lesbians, there are snippets of interviews with a number of rabbis, including Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. The religious leaders offer their interpretations of Torah, as well as the Talmud (the centuries-old collection of rabbinical writings). Gay and straight psychotherapists are interviewed about their experience as well.
I have two main criticisms of the film. My biggest complaint is that, in an effort to make his subjects sympathetic, Dubowski too often stoops to cheap emotion. Do we really need to see Israel confess, "The real truth is…that I'm 58 years old, and I want my Daddy?" Do we need to witness the cliché of David crying in anguish at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall? I wish the director had trusted that his subjects had compelling stories to tell, and avoided the cheap theatrics. Secondly, there is often a sense of dislocation in the editing. At times, the audience is unsure whether the location has shifted to Los Angeles or London or New York or Israel. It would have been easy to clear this up with a quick graphic.
I love that Dubowski has made the material accessible to non-Jews. When his subjects throw in an occasional Yiddish or Hebrew word, subtitles are shown for the full sentence, with the translated word in italics. As the film goes along, the audience presumably increases its vocabulary, so that fewer words are translated. Player-generated subtitles are also available in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Spanish. Dubowski had wanted to give a taste of Orthodox religious traditions, but since neither public nor private ceremonies could be photographed, his clever solution was to recreate them in the studio, in silhouette. These passages enhance the narrative. The spare musical score by renowned composer and musician John Zorn is superb.
Trembling Before G-d found tremendous success on the festival circuit, winning the Best Documentary award in both Berlin and Chicago, along with five other awards. Instead of resting on these laurels, Dubowski (with collaborators like Rabbi Greenberg in tow) has taken his film on the road, traveling to over sixty cities throughout the world, and participating in over 400 question-and-answer sessions. The director and his project have received over 25 foundation grants, including ones from the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Steven Spielberg Righteous Persons Foundation. All of this effort has resulted in a dialogue of sorts in Orthodox communities, where previously the subject of homosexuality was rarely broached.
If the main purpose of documentary film is to educate or enlighten, the Holy Grail for most documentary filmmakers is to effect change. A famous example of the latter is Errol Morris' 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, which ultimately resulted in the exoneration of a man serving a life sentence for a crime he didn't commit. Judging by the contents of disc two of this set, Trembling Before G-d has had no less an impact on the lives of Orthodox gays and lesbians specifically, and the Orthodox community in general.
While the film itself runs a scant 80 minutes, the extras total nearly three hours. Trembling on the Road is a 40-minute exploration of the film's reception, and the effect it had on its brave participants. I honestly believe that it is a better, more moving documentary than Trembling Before G-d, though of course it couldn't exist without the earlier work. Dubowski shows both the praise and criticism that have greeted the film (he's received over 2000 emails alone). We see the reactions of audience members, rabbis, and the documentary participants after screenings in Baltimore, Salt Lake City, Sydney, Jerusalem, San Francisco, and New York.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the film has resonated with heterosexual, non-Jewish audiences as well. One woman says: "I'm Catholic. I married someone Jewish, my children are Presbyterian. I'm reading mostly Buddhist literature. I'm heterosexual and have six children, and your movie spoke to me because the superficial themes were different, but the humanity touched every question I've had in my life." It's also interesting to learn that the word "tremblor" has entered the Jewish vocabulary as a synonym for a gay man or lesbian. Finally, the filmmakers have established the Orthodox Community Education Project, which trained eleven facilitators who then screened the film for over 2000 Orthodox educators and therapists throughout the state of Israel.
Other extras include separate interviews with the director and his creative collaborator and editor, Susan Korda; more conversations with Orthodox rabbis (and a separate conversation with Rabbi Greenberg); featurettes on the Israeli Education Project, the creation of the film's religious silhouettes, and the Atonement Ceremony for Sexual Sins; an excerpt from Donahue; a fun, brief excerpt of Mark singing; a deleted scene; the theatrical trailer; and a text listing of international Orthodox gay and lesbian resources, and web links for further information (though the promised "glossary" is not yet available online). Finally, Dubowski includes his award-winning short film, Tomboychik, an affectionate portrait of his grandmother. I watched everything on this second disc, and can report that it is extraordinary. Kudos to Dubowski, his collaborators, and New Yorker Films for this Rolls-Royce treatment
The documentary was apparently shot on digital video. It is presented on this DVD in an anamorphically enhanced transfer, with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. I did not see the film projected in the theater, but I hope it looks better than it does on DVD. Colors are washed out, and the image suffers from horrendous edge enhancement. Bright light shimmers painfully on the screen, straight edges are jagged, and halos are common. I am sympathetic that this film was made on a low budget, and is primarily designed to convey information and emotion, but it can be difficult to watch at times on this DVD. The sound is coded as Dolby Digital stereo, and is adequate. Subtitling, as noted above, is excellent. The two discs are housed in a foldout Digipak case, contained it an outer sleeve.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like Log Cabin Republicans, the subjects of this documentary will not be sympathetic to some, who will question why these people would seek acceptance from a group that despises them. Some gays and lesbians will see evidence of self-hatred or internalized homophobia in this behavior. Others might respond that if the Jewish faith is essential to your happiness, why not join a nice liberal Reformed synagogue where you'll be treated with respect? Some may question Dubowski's method of portraying his subjects at moments in which they are most vulnerable and emotional. They may feel that this technique results in pity, rather than empathy. Those with a more activist bent will dismiss his conciliatory posture in favor of storming the gates of Orthodox Judaism.
This is a rare case in which an above-average film becomes extraordinary by virtue of superb supplementary material. The extras expand upon the documentary, and make it both more relevant and more universal. Problems with the transfer aside, New Yorker is to be commended for recognizing the importance of the material, and producing a truly "special" Special Edition.
The meshungina prosecutor should be Trembling Before J-dge for bringing these ridiculous charges in the first place. New Yorker can take great pride in this essential release. Case is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Featurette: Trembling on the Road (37:00)
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