On a recent Saturday night at a Hasidic home in Brooklyn, a mother of 10 children ushered her guests past a dining room lined with leather-bound volumes, most written in Hebrew and pertaining to the proper conduct of Jewish life. There were books on science, childbirth, kabbalah, gematria (the art of numerology), biblical texts, and Jewish archaeology. Beyond them, squeezed into a small living room, were about 40 people: modestly dressed women, men in knitted yarmulkes, and a few whose round fur hats and black silk caftans recalled the garb of 18th-century Northern European ghettos. After many friendly greetings, everyone settled down to watch a documentary about people struggling to reconcile their Orthodox Jewish faith with their lives as gays and lesbians.
Trembling Before G-d, directed by Sandi Simcha DuBowski (currently at Film Forum), is a remarkable portrait of Orthodox (or frum) life, as seen through the eyes of people who are often estranged from it. Some have left that world behind; others live inside its bounds, married and closeted; still others are seeking, with their rabbis or within themselves, ways to repair the rift between faith and sexuality. “A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman,” says the Torah in Leviticus 10:13, “they have both done an abomination, they shall be put to death.” The Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, specifies lashes as the punishment for lesbianism, though today women risk losing family and community. For Orthodox gay Jews, these verses present a seemingly immovable obstacle to full acceptance.
“The film doesn’t solve the problem of the text,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, who appears in Trembling. “Rather, the film claims that no halakic [Jewish legal] authority can avoid facing the reality of people’s lives.”
We meet, among others, David, a gay Orthodox Jewish doctor who spent years undergoing therapies designed to “cure” him of homosexual desires; “Devorah,” a married frum lesbian who still finds strength in the Torah, though she can no longer endure the touch of her husband; and Mark, a gay Hasidic yeshiva student with AIDS, who manages to joyfully embrace these contradictions.
That evening in Brooklyn was the first of hundreds of screenings DuBowski is organizing in living rooms and Orthodox synagogues, reaching people who generally don’t go to movies. In this home without television, the film was screened on a computer monitor hooked up to a VCR; afterward, people gathered around the dining room table.
A man said that he once worked in a mentoring program, studying Torah with another man who at one point revealed that he was gay. “I felt uncomfortable teaching him Torah,” he said. “There were questions, for me, about his conversion.” He was disturbed by the film’s images of Mark dancing with other male yeshiva students; he thought it might harm their marriage prospects. “I would like to know more about the families who seemingly ostracized the frum gay men and women,” he said. “I would want to know if there were compelling reasons to shun.”
A woman talked about her son’s friend, who recently came out in college and ended up leaving the Orthodox community. “When you talk about a choice to be Orthodox and gay, I think you have to have your head examined,” she said. “What Simcha did well was to put a face to this subject, and allow us to feel the pain these people are going through, and to see this isn’t them it’s happening to, it’s our kids, it’s us.”
Rachel, a young woman from Jerusalem, spoke passionately of the need for open discussion, and evoked the anguish of people lost in marriages where these issues are afloat. Later, in private, she told me that she had watched the film with her boyfriend of six months, who’d grown up in a traditional home, and who then came out to her.
Uriel, from Brooklyn, was moved by the “sheer human suffering” the film exposed, and by “the tremendous piety of all those interviewed.” Heshy thought the community might begin to address their pain by inviting them for Friday-night dinner, but he was worried about the existence of gay Orthodox synagogues. “I wouldn’t accept a shul for adulterers,” he said. People talked about the various sins the Torah calls “abominations”—besides sodomy, these include eating treyf and violating the Sabbath. Is there a basic difference between them? “Well,” a woman said, “there’s no movement of people saying, ‘We violate the Sabbath, but we’re frum Jews, please accept us.’ ”
Orthodox people find most commercial films set in their world (such as Sidney Lumet’s A Stranger Among Us or Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies) either offensive or irrelevant. That evening, some were disturbed and others concerned about the impropriety of airing what they perceived as dirty Jewish laundry in public. But many were moved, and most seemed to think this film belonged within their community rather than outside it.
DuBowski grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in “deep coastal Brooklyn” (Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach), where fellow Harvard alumnus and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky was a close friend. Trembling is DuBowski’s first feature; he’s grown closer to Orthodoxy through the seven years it took him to research it. “When a judge decides a case, it’s through the power of human testimony,” he said later. “That’s how Jewish law works. It seems so well suited as a process to filmmaking. These stories needed to be unearthed for any change to happen. And there’s no magic solution. But I felt that my role as a filmmaker was to be both witness to this history, and a catalyst.”
When the film screened at Sundance last January, DuBowski organized a Mormon-Jewish gay dialogue. Over the next two years, he’ll be touring Christian theological seminaries in the South. But for him, the film’s movement through the Orthodox Jewish world is paramount. And he’s optimistic. “Look at the screening we had last week,” he said. “People were there until 2:30 a.m., grappling with these questions.”
Jessica Winter’s review of Trembling Before G-d
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 30, 2001