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February 20, 2002 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed


'Trembling Before G-d'

A documentary by Sandi Simcha DuBowski looks at the conflict between honoring one's religion and sexual orientation.

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By Kevin Thomas, Times Staff Writer

Sandi Simcha DuBowski's wonderful documentary, "Trembling Before G-d," extends a warm embrace to those struggling to reconcile sexual orientation with the teachings of the religion in which they were raised and which they cherish.

Many, perhaps most, gay people in the name of their sanity and self-respect, either turn their backs on the traditional organized religions that reject or condemn them or create their own religious organizations. But there are those who hunger to participate in the religion of their families.

While DuBowski explores the plight of Orthodox Jews, both in America and abroad, what he discovers applies to gay Catholics, Mormons and members of other religions worldwide. In its most extreme forms, Orthodox Jewry holds that acts of homosexuality are punishable by death. A more moderate stance holds that homosexuality is evil or, at the very least, a sickness.

Even the kindest, most caring of the Orthodox rabbis DuBowski interviews believe that gay men and women must remain celibate and devote their lives trying to pray away their orientation.

DuBowski has cast admirably far and wide for his interviews, giving the work global scope. In some instances, DuBowski is pretty clearly a proactive documentarian, inspiring some of his interviewees to dare to take steps that are risky and revealing.

Among those we meet is David, an Angeleno in his 30s who struggled for years to change his sexual orientation. Concluding that Judaism does not mean people to endure such suffering, he confronts the rabbi who 20 years earlier advised him to seek "reparative" therapy.

We then meet Michelle, who grew up in Boro Park, Brooklyn, believing she must be the only Hasidic lesbian in the world and allowing herself to be pressured into marriage. Largely disowned by her family, Michelle is a woman of resilient good humor and self-acceptance. "Malka" and "Leah," who, like several other interviewees, feel they dare not reveal their names or faces on camera, run a hotline for desperate Orthodox gays. They find strength in their love for each other but continue to suffer family rejection. They also fear that their love may prevent them from entering heaven.

One of the most colorful of DuBowski's people is Israel, a 58-year-old New Yorker who long ago decided that to be Orthodox and to be gay was impossible and who therefore turned his back on his religion, but not before his family had coerced him into submitting to electro-shock treatment.

He finds therapy in conducting "Big Knish" tours of Brooklyn's Hasidic neighborhoods. As he prepares to celebrate 25 years with his life partner, he telephones his 98-year-old father, whom he has not seen in some 20 years.

In Israel, DuBowski meets "Devorah," a long-married mother and grandmother who sees no way out of her predicament as a lesbian yet is persuaded to attend a public gay and lesbian gathering. Although she says she does not favor gay rights, she does feel exhilarated by being out for a few hours.

Among others DuBowski interviews are Shlomo Ashkinazy, a psychotherapist who has run a confidential support group for Orthodox gay men for nearly 20 years, and Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who DuBowski says is the world's first openly gay Orthodox rabbi. He is a key figure in the movement to end the isolation of gay Orthodox men and women, to encourage them to organize and debate a 1,000-year-old tradition that condemns them.

The hope of Greenberg and others is that the more awareness Orthodox Judaism has of gays and lesbians, the less inclined it will be to demonize them.

For his participation in this documentary, DuBowski rewarded Greenberg uniquely: He played matchmaker, bringing together the rabbi and the man he's been with for the last two years.


Unrated. Times guidelines: Complex, mature themes.

'Trembling Before G-d'

A New Yorker Films release. Director Sandi Simcha DuBowski. Producers DuBowski & Marc Smolowitz. Co-producers James Velaise (Pretty Pictures, Paris) and Philippa Kowarsky (Cinephil, Ltd., Tel Aviv). Creative collaborator and editor Susan Korda. Composer John Zorn.

Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.


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