TREMBLING BEFORE G-D (director: Sandi Simcha DuBowski; cinematographers: Donna Binder, Sandra Chandler, Mik Cribben, Jim Denault, Ken Druckerman, Mr. DuBowski, Kirsten Johnson, Kevin Keating, Karen Kramer, Jennifer Lane, David Leitner, Marie Pederson, Ben Speth, Fawn Yacker and Andrew Yarme (U.S.A.); Noski DeVille and Mr. DuBowski (U.K.); Nili Aslan, Mr. DuBowski, Issa Freij, Jackie Matithau, Yoram Milo, Yitzak Portal and Abigail Sperber (Israel); editor: Susan Korda; music: John Zorn; cast: David, Michelle, Devorah, Mark, Israel, Malka, Leah, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Shlomo Ashkinazy, Chaim, Ben Aaron, Sue, Tova, Shmuel; Runtime: 84; New Yorker Films; 2001)
“You don’t have to wear a yarmulke or even be Jewish to be affected by this traumatic story of religious intolerance.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
You don’t have to wear a yarmulke or even be Jewish to be affected by this traumatic story of religious intolerance. It’s a humorless but provocative documentary shot by Sandi Simcha DuBowski and is set in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Boro Park, Tel Aviv, and London. The film portrays a group of people who face a profound dilemma — how to reconcile their passionate need to be a practicing Hasidic or Orthodox Jew with the Draconian biblical prohibitions from the Torah that forbids homosexuality. The film is built around the personal stories these sympathetic gays and lesbians intimately tell, as they have conflicts with their rabbi, parents, and community. Some are unwilling to reveal their true identity and appear as silhouetted figures.
David is a handsome and earnest Orthodox Jew, whose father was a teacher in a religious school. His parents can’t accept his homosexuality and tell the naive young man to change, while the scholarly rabbi he goes to for advice tells him to eat figs and say the psalms. He also tells him to wear a rubber band around his wrist and snap it whenever he has the urge to be with a man. He also recommends that David see a therapist. The serious-minded but confused David follows all the rabbi’s advice and naturally none of the suggestions work. It is now 20 years later and David is certain he will always be a homosexual, and is nervous about seeing the same rabbi again for advice. The rabbi is no longer willing to advice him to see a therapist, but says the followers of the Talmud cannot practice homosexuality. His advice is that David becomes celibate.
I found Israel, a 58-year-old queer who is a tour guide in Boro Park, to be the most mature and interesting one interviewed. He was a yeshiva student who received shock treatment to cleanse him of his homosexuality. But he eventually found that you can’t be queer and Orthodox, and therefore gave up his religious practice. The price he pays is dear, since he’s cut off from his family, his roots, and traditional beliefs. His 98-year-old father hasn’t seen him for the last 20 years, and in a filmed phone conversation using a speakerphone the two could hardly communicate except for expressing in a civil tone good wishes to each other for the Sabbath and the upcoming Jewish holidays.
Malka is a lesbian living in Brooklyn, who is afraid other family members will find out her sexual secret — as she evidently tells some but not all. She got out of her marriage of convenience, and is now living in a lesbian relationship — accepting that she can’t be a lesbian and a Hasidic. The price she pays is that her parents have little to do with her. In one scene, she nervously takes the cameraman through a Brooklyn Hasidic amusement park and comments in a matter of fact way on seeing how happy the children are: “Seems like a lot of these kids are a lot happier than I was.”
The film indicates that it’s up to each individual on how they want to handle being gay or lesbian while also being an Orthodox Jew. The ones who try to fit into an Orthodox religion where everything is stacked against them, seem to have the most trouble accepting that their religion calls their sexual activities an abomination. The ones who reluctantly withdrew from their religious practices are faced with a sadness and a loneliness about their decision, but at least their lives are progressing with their acceptance to remain gay or lesbian.
In this melancholy look at a dogmatic religion and how severe its restrictions can be, DuBowski’s skills as a filmmaker are in clearly presenting the problem faced. What the director failed to do, is take the film to another dimension and ask more intellectual questions of his interviewees other than questioning them on how they tried to fit into their religion. Mr. DuBowski’s subjects indicate that this is an ongoing problem and that there will be more to hear about this subject in the future, especially since things are changing and even the most fundamentalist religions will have to some day answer questions in a way they might not have currently imagined. My advice is: Don’t hold your breathe waiting for change to take place.
REVIEWED ON 5/7/2002 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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