One would scarcely imagine that the subject of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews would have the makings of anything more than an exceedingly brief documentary. Leviticus 20:13, which says a man who "lies with a man" must be put to death, doesn't offer much in the way of wiggle room, and if you're inclined to strict interpretation of the Talmud to begin with, a "Dr." Laura Schlesinger isn't needed to indicate that one's next move should be toward the nearest exit. But Sandi Simcha DuBowski's film is a feature, and it doesn't consist of repeated shots of men and women beating their heads against a brick wall. Rather, Trembling Before G-d (in deference to Orthodox tradition, the name of the deity is never written in full) offers copious stories and approaches to resolve the seemingly insurmountable contradiction between people of deeply held religious beliefs and the superstructure so intent on rejecting them for those they love.
Shot during a period of five years in New York, Los Angeles, London, Miami, San Francisco and Israel, and dealing with an array of individuals whose joy in their religious beliefs is inextricably intertwined with the pain its chief practitioners inflict upon them, Trembling Before G-d is a perfect example of why focusing on the specific inevitably illuminates the universal. While it begins as a film about gays and Judaism, by its end Trembling Before G-d is profoundly relevant to anyone who has ever locked horns with an ideological system that sought to contain or control him.
This is made particularly clear in an interview with Steven Greenberg, the world's first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, who recounts the difficulty his own rabbi had in comprehending the concept that not only is anal intercourse not the alpha and omega of gay existence but that Greenberg had no interest in it. The rabbi's astonishment that gay lovemaking consisted of things other than anal intercourse will be resoundingly familiar to the same-sex-oriented who have discovered that many heterosexuals are far more obsessed with anal intercourse than they are. And this in turn relates to the panicked unwillingness of many straights to deal with the gays and lesbians in their midst--a circumstance that, in the world DuBowski details, has led to a profound crisis.
Trembling Before G-d
Opens April 17.
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For some gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, leaving the world they love is the only hope of survival; others have chosen to stay and fight. But it's to DuBowski's credit that he shows that battle not as a destructive revolt, but as an active effort toward reconciliation and forgiveness. For instance there's David, now in his 30s, who became aware of his sexuality in his youth and was told by his rabbi to eat figs and wear a rubber band on his wrist, which he was told to flick whenever he felt what a naughty gentile named Cole Porter called "the urge to merge with a splurge." Needless to say, it didn't work, but David's willingness to confront his rabbi about it, and his rabbi's sympathetic yet profoundly unhelpful response (that David should resign himself to a life of loveless celibacy), isn't presented by DuBowski as a dead end. Rather, it's part of an ongoing process paralleling that of the film's other participants: David isn't about to give up, though his rabbi may have done so.
Israel, a man of advanced years and gleefully sardonic disposition, is shown celebrating his 25th anniversary of unsanctioned bliss with his lover Carl. Hugging tenaciously to the periphery of Brooklyn's Hassidic neighborhood, he offers "Big Knish Tours" to interested parties of the world in which he hasn't been welcome for the better part of his life. Confrontation comes in the form of a phone call from his father, who, while 98 years old and living near him, concocts one excuse after another for being "unable" to see the son he hasn't laid eyes on for more than 20 years--since he sent his son to seek shock therapy as a "cure" for his "sin." Israel is enraged at his father's cowardly intransigence, and his anger has made him only more forthright.
"Malka" and "Leah," a young lesbian couple, haven't gotten to that stage yet. Though they've been together for 12 years, their families shun them, save for a purely pro forma holiday phone call--which only makes the pain of separation deeper. Still, this couple--willing to speak but unwilling to show their faces on camera--are better off than some of the others about whom the film informs us: lesbians forced by their families into loveless marriages, some of whom found suicide as the only way out.
But the film isn't a litany of doom and gloom. This is especially true of Mark, the son of an Orthodox rabbi who's only too happy to become one as well, save for the fact he's gay. His parents sent him to Israel to study the Talmud, believing there are no gays there. "Big mistake!" Mark says, laughing. "I came out in Israel." Now, he is HIV-positive, yet this incredibly bright young man brims with joy as he celebrates in prayer and dance with his gay Orthodox Jewish friends. And while fully aware that his life may be shortened, he doesn't believe he's been cheated. He's not a Pollyanna or a Dr. Pangloss, either, because Mark understands the difference between what he has chosen (his religion) and what he is (a gay man). And the difference between choosing and being that gay and lesbian life--Jewish or gentile--is made manifestly clear by this deeply moving and exceptionally gracious piece of documentary filmmaking.