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Early in Trembling Before G-d, Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, a psychotherapist named Yaakov Meir Weil tells the story of a yeshiva instructor who decided to take a vacation. Weil, a kindly looking man with a soothing voice, explains tenderly that this man needed a break because he was falling in love with one of his male students, and in fact had battled against homosexual feelings for 40 years, through a marriage that produced 12 children. Then the narrative takes an odd turn: Weil concludes that the teacher, praised as “a saint” by his clinically depressed wife, is the model of a religious Jew, strong and valiant enough to “struggle with his desire and not let it beat him.”
This is compassion devoid of empathy, touching but ultimately useless—a potent source of heartache throughout DuBowski’s film, shot in Israel, London, and several U.S. cities. (The battalion of cinematographers includes Boys Don’t Cry‘s Jim Denault.) When we meet the rabbi who long ago advised a gay Jew named David to eat figs and snap a rubber band on his wrist as “aversive conditioning,” he seems wise, sweet, and wholly reasonable. Another young man—ultra-Orthodox, HIV-positive Mark—recalls that his favorite rabbi helpfully suggested that masturbating was “less of a sin” than gay sex; Mark raves about how the old man invited him to his house and treated him like one of the family, and it’s difficult to discern whether his gratitude is servile or simply indulgent. In Brooklyn, Malka’s semi-estranged parents blatantly ignore her longtime partner, Leah, when they make a perfunctory pre-Sabbath phone call—and yet something resembling love exists in the guilt-assuaging gesture, otherwise Malka wouldn’t break down sobbing after they hang up.
For both sides, gay identity and unwavering faith are absolutes, either inextricably linked or mutually exclusive. Obviously a skillful interviewer, DuBowski, raised Conservative, speaks with dozens of gay Jews (many of them with blurred faces or shrouded in silhouette) as well as Orthodox rabbis and scholars. One rabbi reduces homosexuality to a “mistake,” because “it doesn’t lead to the kind of normative family life that the Talmud sees as the fundamental building structure for a good and holy society.” In other words, it doesn’t lead to procreative sex. The strict-constructionist wings of monotheism justify the condemnation of homosexuals (and the subjugation of women) not only by the ancient letter of their laws but by the divinely writ premium put on childbirth. Whatever can be said about this argument, it does adhere to its own internal rationale, whereas fundamentalist gays and lesbians of all stripes are caught—as one of Trembling‘s gay interviewees, Israel, puts it—in “a logical contradiction.” How, after all, does an Orthodox Jew circumvent Leviticus?
Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, tells the camera, “There are other ways of reading the Torah—let’s learn.” But the film cuts him off there, and never investigates those alternative interpretations, nor do DuBowski’s subjects provide their own. Virtually no historical context underpins the interviews; the documentary’s memory stretches back only as far as that of Israel, a sixtyish Brooklynite who endured electroshock therapy in the ’50s to “cure” him. DuBowski instead focuses narrowly on present-day, first-person accounts. These testimonies—anguished but measured, and unembellished by voice-over or interceding questions—are a plainspoken challenge to the rabbis who disdain homosexuals and the Orthodox parents of gay children whom he couldn’t get on camera; to his enormous credit, DuBowski has no interest in preaching to the converted. (Having already taken Trembling to rabbinic retreats and orchestrated Mormon-Jewish gay dialogues at Sundance around the film, the tireless DuBowski will next tour the Bible Belt, even making a stop at Bob Jones University.)
Though angry and sorrowful, Trembling Before G-d, beginning with the title, is above all a work of reverence. DuBowski’s sober, scrupulous documentary doesn’t lash out at an oppressive religious structure so much as offer a hopeful prayer—out of love and devotion—that it be made better.
Starting off by envisioning Eleanor Roosevelt as the honored guest at a pioneering lesbian-rights conference, Barbara Hammer’s collage of homophilic pre-Stonewall imagery, History Lessons, decodes its footage through cut-and-paste juxtaposition and knowingly clumsy, Forrest Gump-like synching. The spirit of cheeky subversion is dampened and soon snuffed out by glib repetition—here Hammer betrays a tiresome attachment to cross-cutting ladyporn with antiquated educational filmstrips, to no real end but snarky giggles.
“Truth and Reconciliation: Orthodox Eyes on ‘G-d’,” by Leslie Camhi