Trembling Before G-d
review by Elias Savada, 1 February 2002

My brother used to be a lot more religious than he is now. My brother is gay.

Sandi Simcha DuBowski's remarkably emotional documentary therefore hits a little closer to my home in its frank discussion of the emotional conundrums facing Orthodox Jews that are gay and lesbian. Not that I'm Orthodox. In seeking divine guidance for their sexual proclivities, many of the subjects in this award-winning film hide behind shadows and silhouettes to spare themselves or their families embarrassment. Most unenlightened viewers would wonder what all the fuss is about, but no matter where you stand with religionóJewish or notóTrembling Before G-d will place you squarely in the middle of a very disheartening controversy. There is a constant sense of uneasiness at all sides of this discussion, and while DuBowski's film reveals a semi-secret group of individuals yearning for acceptance without abandoning their religious convictions (apparently after twenty-five years in some cases), the ultimate manner of co-existence and inner peace that they hope to find is not the stuff of documentary storybook ending;  rather, it is left open, like an non-healing wound. The pain of strong-willed beliefs, at times, is nearly unbearable.

Among the secularly religious, particularly the reform and conservative branches of modern Judaism, such "outcasts" are actually welcomed members of many congregations, but in the stricter disciplines of the ultra-religious Orthodox and Hasidic Jews such same-gender liaisons are stringently prohibited. These fundamentalist Jews consider homosexuality a sin against the curator, according to the Torah and the Shulchan Aruch, a centuries-old code of Jewish law. It strikes me that this dilemma is not dissimilar to Firesign Theatre's comedic mind-bending assumption "How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all," except there's nothing funny about the situation portrayed here.

Building his film around several individuals who speak openly, although often masked from the camera, about their faith and the personal decisions that have shattered their lives or devastated those close to them, DuBowski and his co-director Susan Korda spent five years collecting footage shot in Brooklyn, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, London, Miami, and San Francisco. The filmmakers sometimes resort to subtitles in deciphering the Israeli accents or translating some of the Hebrew phrases unfamiliar to the Jews and gentiles in the audience.

The traumatic message is all too clear, however. The question of mixing ultra-structured religious identity with the illumination of a person's innermost need for sexual exploration has no easy answers. A psychologist talks of the tumultuous conflicts from one patient, a fifty-six-year-old father of twelve, who has struggled with his homosexuality for forty years. David, an openly gay Jew living in Los Angeles, was told by his learned rabbi to eat figs and said a prayer for months to ride himself of his feelings. Such absurd aspirins of denial are probably more likely prescribed (although several do admit to taking tranquilizers) to exorcise the sexual aberration as a control issue. A decade or more later, David reconnects with his teacher, now suggesting celibacy, yet realizing his reversal therapy bore the wrong fruit. David, tearfully, seeks happiness and peace with God in a letter he places in a crack in Jerusalem's hallowed Western Wall. He's reduced to tears and we all can collectively weep with and for him.

In Florida we meet Malka, a rabbi's daughter, and Leah, lesbian lovers for ten years who commiserate in misery as they kneed dough for Challah and pray that their many mitzvahs will merit them a better place in the next world. They are both detached from their families, the only connection a short phone call from parentsóblind to the love of their childóevery Friday afternoon, wishing them a quick good Shabbos greeting before an abrupt hang-up.

In Brooklyn, Michelle describes herself as the quintessential New York Chassidic lesbian. Having suffered through a failed marriage of convenience to accommodate her family, she hasn't seen her baby sister in seven years and her ostracism is all the more obvious as the camera watches her walk through her old neighborhood, unexpectedly meeting an uncle unaware of her "condition."

The angst of low self esteem pervades frame after frame, each subject struggling with their testimony before the camera. There are some small sadness-laced victories, of fifty-year-old Israel Fishman in Brooklyn, a former Yeshiva student turned tour guide, happy in a quarter-century relationship with partner Carl Navarro. Israel desperately wants his daddy, he cries, with whom he hasn't spoken in thirty years. When the contact finally arrives in a phone call, Israel is more disappointed than elated. "He doesn't hear," the son tells us, not referring to his father's physical condition. Carl sits in the back, shaking his head with regret.

The supreme deity, not to belittle the filmmakers, gives no clear cut answers as the film's subjects shudder before us. Rapture is not near. Sandi Simcha DuBowski's cautionary tale will open the debate much, much wider, but the profound question of where the passion of Judaism and homosexuality come out, way out, from an invisible past makes Trembling Before G-d an engaging document of the human condition.

Written and
Directed by:

Sandi Simcha DuBowski
Susan Korda

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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