A simple twist of faith
Fundamentalist Christianity has long been the flag-bearer for institutionalized
homophobia. But Orthodox Judaism has always quietly upheld the same decree against
Along comes Trembling before G-d, the first documentary to challenge Orthodox Judaism on this stance. (The dash in the title follows the Jewish custom of not spelling out God's name.) It follows the struggles of gays and lesbians to continue living as Orthodox Jews despite their religion's prohibitions. Suprisingly, the documentary is so free of rancour and so filled with love for the religion that it has actually inspired some audience members to raise their hands after screenings and ask how they can convert.
Director Sandi Simcha DuBowski is heartened by this reaction. "There's a lot of beauty in the tradition," he explains during an interview at the Hot Docs festival. In celebrating this beauty, the film manages not to vilify the religion even as it shows the suffering the prohibition causes.
But DuBowski believes the documentary's appeal is rooted in something more universal than religion. "I think the film really captures that moment when we felt alone, when we've broken the rules of the community or our family," he says. "We get so many non-Jews, so many straight people, who come to this film because it brings them to a very intense, emotional level. It really sits with them and causes them to reflect. It's about the yearning to belong and how we all grapple with faith in some way, whatever religion we are and whatever fundamentalism we are up against."
He hastens to add that the film has no agenda "beyond alleviating an immense amount of pain that people are going through." His subjects are what he calls the "hardest cases," people who are profoundly torn between their faith and their sexuality. DuBowski's access to their intimate moments gives the film its enormous pull.
We meet Leah and Malka, a lesbian couple since their teens, who've created a loving Jewish home together. Yet they're estranged from their parents, who call during a Shabbat dinner only because their rabbi advised them to. The coldness of this call breaks Leah and Malka's hearts, and ours.
We also meet Israel, an elderly man who conducts tours around the Brooklyn Jewish community that exiled him. One day he comes across a young Orthodox student and tearfully shares his story. "Fluke!" DuBowski says of his luck in capturing this moment. Though the film is shot and edited in somewhat amateur fashion, subjects like Israel are as articulate and passionate as any filmmaker could hope for.
And then there's David, a San Franciscan who spent 12 years in therapy desperately trying to overcome his homosexuality. The film is structured as a series of homecoming journeys, and David's journey is back to the rabbi he idolized as a teenager. In an almost unbearably poignant scene, David confronts the rabbi with his struggles and asks how God could want him to continue.
Conrad Black's Jerusalem Post criticized Trembling before G-d last September for depicting Orthodox society as cold and unsympathetic. DuBowski disagrees with this characterization. "You watch David visit that rabbi he hasn't seen in 20 years, and he asks him, 'what should I do?' The rabbi sits there, and you see the wheels turning in his head. 'What am I going to say? How am I going to hold this life in my hands?' And the rabbi says, 'I don't know.' And that moment to me is profound, when the rabbi admits the holiness of not knowing.
"We need to ask more questions," DuBowski continues. "Every preacher, every minister, every rabbi can bang their fists on the table and quote [the biblical prohibition against homosexuality] and say the conversation's over. I feel like the rabbis need to hear the stories of people who struggle with these verses every day and then make the ruling. Because someone like David tried for 12 years to change and failed. What does he do?"
The same Jerusalem Post article criticizes DuBowski for not showing any stories of people who "successfully" changed their sexual orientation. DuBowski says he would've included such a story if he'd found one. "I've mostly met people who've gone through these therapies and failed them. And what is change? Just controlling your desire? Or is it like you've really transformed?"
DuBowski's own story is far less traumatic than those of his documentary subjects. Raised as a conservative Jew in New York, he came out to his parents at 18, then declared he wanted to become a filmmaker. "It was like the double whammy -- I don't know which was worse," he says.
After seeing the success of family friend Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and the support DuBowski received from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons foundation and George Lucas's film company, which donated use of the Skywalker Ranch for the film's sound mix, DuBowski's mother came around. "I had to remind her that I'm doing a documentary and I may not get a Prada suit in the mail," he says.
DuBowski has since become "Orthodox-inspired" and is devoting himself to the
outreach programs surrounding the film's release (email firstname.lastname@example.org
for information on Toronto events). He's forgoing other film projects for now.
"I always quote the Talmud that when one is nursing, one shouldn't get pregnant.
And right now, I do feel like I have twins."