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
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
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.