Gay and Orthodox.” That’s long been considered an oxymoron. You might as well say “pork-eating and Orthodox.”
A new film demonstrates that the first construction, at least, may not be a contradiction in terms.
“Trembling Before G-d,” a documentary created by a young American Jew, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, opens today, March 8 at Chicago”s Music Box Theatre. For many, its reputation precedes it. It was chosen for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last year and garnered many favorable reviews (and also gave rise to the first communal Shabbat celebration in the festival”s history).
At the 2001 Berlin Film Festival, it was named Best Documentary. At the Jerusalem Film Festival, it received the Mayor”s Award in the Jewish Experience category. It received the grand jury award for documentary feature at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. In October, it broke opening day box office records at Manhattan’s Film Forum.
In Baltimore, Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians picketed the theater where it was showing. In most cities, however, it has given rise not to protests but to discussions, both formal and informal”which is exactly what DuBowski had in mind over the six years that he spent making the film.
The 83-minute documentary begins with two quotes, laid out on the screen. The first, from Leviticus, is “A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination: they shall be put to death, their blood is on them.”
The second, from the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law): “For women to rub against each other in the position of sexual intercourse is forbidden … It is fitting for the court to administer lashes for this transgression.”
From there, “Trembling” moves through Brooklyn, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, London, Miami and San Francisco tracing the experiences of a number of real- life Jews. All are gays and lesbians who were brought up in the Orthodox tradition and, for the most part, are determined to stay within that tradition despite the pain and struggle the decision has caused them. A few go by their real names; many do not. Some are seen only in silhouette, behind a screen, or in shadow.
Among them is David, a former Chicagoan and the son of a cantor. In an interview, he describes how he spent more than a decade trying to change his sexual orientation, following rabbinic advice that ranged from eating figs (really) to flicking a rubber band against his wrist every time he felt attracted to a man.
In one scene, David describes his pain to a Chasidic rabbi in San Francisco who told him years before that he should see a therapist to change his sexual orientation. That effort failed, and David asks the rabbi whether he must live without love and a partner for the rest of his life. The rabbi, though he is warm and accepting of David as a person and a Jew, has no helpful advice to give him about his sexual orientation. The last time we see David, he is in Jerusalem at the Western Wall, praying and sobbing as he seeks guidance from G-d.
“Malka” and “Leah” became high-school sweethearts at an ultra-Orthodox school in Brooklyn and have been together ever since, 12 years. They live an observant lifestyle and have created a kosher home with a warm and loving atmosphere.
In one scene, we see them baking challah together and preparing for Shabbat. The peace they feel is shattered, however, when “Malka” calls her father, an Orthodox rabbi. He has never accepted her sexual orientation, and speaks harshly to her. After the phone call, she is very upset, but “Leah” comforts her and she finally becomes calm just as the two women usher in Shabbat.
Another lesbian, Michelle, grew up in a Chasidic family in Boro Park, Brooklyn. She was married in the traditional Jewish manner, but couldn”t keep up the fa”ade and eventually left her husband. Her family disowned her and she became extremely overweight.
Mark, the son of an Orthodox rabbi in London, describes how he was kicked out of seven yeshivas in England and Israel for homosexual activity. Now he has AIDS, but longs to return to the yeshiva world and the Orthodox practices that he loved and misses. During the course of the film he does so, finally finding a community of observant gay men with whom he is sharing a joyous Succot celebration the last time we see him.
There are many other stories: “Devorah,” a closeted, married ultra-Orthodox lesbian in Jerusalem; Israel, a middle-aged man who, after celebrating his 25th anniversary with his partner Carl, calls his 98-year-old father, to whom he has not spoken in more than two decades; Rabbi Steven Greenberg, described as the world”s first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, who now runs a gay and lesbian community center in Jerusalem; “Chaim,” an Orthodox gay man who founded an organization called the New York Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva/Day School Alumni Association in 1995; and more. Their stories are interspersed with comments from Orthodox rabbis and psychotherapists.
Surprisingly, Sandi Simcha DuBowski does not come from an Orthodox family. The 30-year-old director and producer, who has worked as a filmmaker and writer in New York since he graduated from Harvard in 1992, was brought up in a Conservative home.
He began “Trembling Before G-d” more than six years ago as “a personal exploration, a video diary. I was trying to find a way to explore the Orthodox world,” which, he said in a recent telephone interview, has always fascinated him.
“It was almost like I didn’t realize what I was getting into,” he said. “I didn’t imagine the amount of pain I would encounter. It took on a whole different depth of seriousness and intensity.” Grants from more than 20 organizations kept the project going.
In part, the film did grow out of personal experience. Even though the Reform and Conservative movements are more accepting of gay Jews, “coming out” was still painful and difficult for him, DuBowski said.
“Before I told my parents that I was gay, I made them promise that they would love me no matter what,” he said. “It was hard for them, but they didn’t turn me out.”
That experience contributed to his belief that “in the Reform or Conservative community, I didn’t think I needed to make that film. It would have made no sense to broaden it (to include other streams of Judaism). It would have lost its piercingness. The Orthodox community had no resources. I saw people in such great pain, and I thought the film could have a transformative effect.”
Besides focusing on gay Jews themselves, DuBowski approached dozens of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis in New York, Los Angeles and Israel, seeking to film their thoughts on the subject. It wasn”t an easy project.
“Filming in ultra-Orthodox communities where most people don”t go to movies or own televisions was sometimes more complicated than the issue of homosexuality,” he said. In the end, 10 rabbis, including Shlomo Riskin, the well-known chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, agreed to appear on camera.
DuBowski encountered other difficulties. Although he wanted to depict the joyous celebrations of Shabbat and Jewish holidays, filming at those times was prohibited in the Orthodox world. Eventually he gathered a large number of people on a sound stage and created giant silhouetted tableaus of a family lighting Shabbat candles, an Orthodox wedding and other signposts of Jewish life.
In contrast to his own experience with his family, “I saw so many Orthodox families who turned their backs on their children,” DuBowski said. “We have “honor thy parents,” but there”s no corollary (for children). I always believed in the myth of the Jewish family, but it was devastating to watch so many children in such sorrow.”
One such scenario, he said, involved the lesbian woman known in the film as Michelle. Grossly overweight, she decided to undergo a stomach-stapling procedure after the film was shot.
“She had complications from surgery, and her life was in danger,” DuBowski related. “But her parents (who had disowned her years before because of her sexual orientation) never called. I went into the chapel (at the hospital) and I started to pray. Then I started to cry, to scream, to plead with G-d: How could you let parents abandon their children”
“In Michelle”s case, being a lesbian could ruin the arranged marriage chances for her brothers and sisters. But it”s not as if Michelle chose to be a lesbian. It would be much easier for her if she weren”t.”
Since that time, Michelle”s life has changed for the better, DuBowski said. She recovered from the surgical complications, lost weight and fell in love.
He is proud of the fact that the film transformed the lives of many who appeared in it. In another instance, “Malka” received a phone call from her brother, whom she hadn”t seen in years, DuBowski related. “He told her, “I heard you were in a movie, and went to see it. I loved it. I didn’t realize how religious you were, how serious you were.”
“Malka” saw her brother for the first time in four years and met nieces and nephews she didn’t know she had. Now, DuBowski said, the brother is trying to convince their father, an ultra- Orthodox rabbi who does not watch movies, to see it.
She recently wrote to DuBowski, telling him “You”re like a shaliach (emissary). You”re helping to reunite my family.”
Israel, another leading personage in the film, also went to his first family function in 30 years and later became close to one of his nephews. And DuBowski personally traveled to Jerusalem with Mark, the AIDS-infected former yeshiva student, and helped him to reconnect with the Orthodox world there. Now Mark has reconciled with his parents and is studying to be a rabbi himself.
But, DuBowski said, the importance of the film is not just the positive impact it has had on the people who appear in it. “It”s what it”s doing for Jewish families,” he said. “My myth of the Jewish family was destroyed, but now it is restored.”
The film”s reception, DuBowski said, surprised even him, beginning with its acceptance at Sundance, which has a highly competitive selection process. “That was like the mark of success for an American (independent) film,” he said. After being shown at the festival, “Trembling” was picked up for distribution by New Yorker Films.
Even more meaningful for him, DuBowski said, was a kosher Shabbat celebration at the festival, which more than 50 Jews and non-Jews, gay and straight, attended. Later during the festival he facilitated a dialogue between gay Jews and gay Mormons. “People who had been excommunicated from the Mormon Church drove from all over the state to come to it,” he said.
DuBowski said it is not just gays who relate to the film, but everyone who “at some point in their lives have felt outside, different, alone, like they didn’t fit in.” At one screening, a non-gay Pakistani Muslim approached DuBowski and told him, “This film is about my life.”
As a result of making the film, DuBowski said he has not only become more observant, he has taken on the multiple roles of “movement-builder, shaliach, community organizer, referral service, peer counselor”even shadchan (matchmaker).” In this last guise, he introduced Steven Greenberg, the gay Orthodox rabbi, to his partner of two years. DuBowski has also founded a Los Angeles support group for Orthodox gays and lesbians.
In terms of the film, “we have gotten more support than not,” he said. “Everywhere we go, in the United States and other countries, we hear one emotional story after another. And a lot of synagogues are sending their membership.” Close to 20 Orthodox synagogues, he said, have shown the film to members and held post-screening discussions, which often turn out to be lively.
During a recent discussion at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, panelists went to great lengths to emphasize the need for discussion and tolerance.
“The mandate of the Orthodox community is to welcome homosexuals to our shuls. One of our real challenges is that heretofore we have not been that welcoming,” the Hebrew Institute”s rabbi, Avi Weiss, said, though he did not condone homosexuality.
Many audience members spoke sympathetically about gays and lesbians, saying the Orthodox community must show flexibility.
Near the end of the evening, however, one older man threw some cold water on the love fest.
“To me, a rabbi who eats chazer,” or pork, “can”t be called Orthodox,” he said. “Yet we have in this film”and throughout this room”that a rabbi who is homosexual can be called Orthodox.”
Later, one panel member praised “conversion therapy,” which aims to change a homosexual into a heterosexual.
Even the Hebrew Institute”s assistant rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, who organized the screening and discussion, admitted there”s only so far he”ll go. He is open to discussion on the issue, Herzfeld said, but he emphasized, “Rabbinic Judaism is the rule that I follow. And Rabbinic Judaism is clear on homosexuality.”
DuBowski welcomes all such give-and- take. “For me, it”s not just about the making of the film, but the movement of the film,” he said, citing not only the discussion groups but the fact that some gay Jews, like “Malka” and “Leah” of the film, “are stepping out of the shadows.” The two women, he said, are beginning to make public appearances at film festivals.
Meanwhile, the world of gay Orthodox support groups”such as the New York Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva/Day School Alumni Association and another called the OrthoDykes”is growing, DuBowski said. He hopes the film will contribute to that trend.
“Homosexuality marks a line in the sand that most Orthodox authorities will not cross,” he said. “But hopefully, this film will inspire the seeds of change.”