Keeping the Faith
'Trembling Before G-d' asks if coming out and staying in the Orthodox Jewish community is an impossible dream
On so many fronts the pain inflicted by religious strictures. (As so well put by political comic Lewis Black when he was here last week, it's no coincidence that we never hear of wars breaking out between atheists and agnostics.) In the early Nineties, gay Jewish filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski was researching and making videos about the Christian Right and the anti-abortion movement for Planned Parenthood when he diverted his camera, innocently enough, for a look, from a secular gay perspective, at homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish community. "People laughed when I told them," he recalls. "They thought it was an oxymoron." And actually it was, at least to all outward appearances: The Orthodox take very seriously Leviticus' explicit prohibition against homosexuality. But in the more than six years it took to make Trembling Before G-d, DuBowski realized that he'd stumbled into something much larger, more global, and more complex than he'd ever imagined. "Having grown up a Conservative Jew and never known anyone Orthodox and gay," says the filmmaker, "I started to meet people who were kicked out of their Orthodox families, thrown out of yeshivas or religious schools, and in marriages betraying their husband or wife."
Although we might expect a "good riddance" response from the rejected, instead, we see how painful the exclusion from the Orthodox community is for those who yearn to live within it. DuBowski's unusual documentary, which premiered at Sundance in 2001, also screened at 2001's Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, and then debuted theatrically with an international bang -- setting an opening-day box office record at New York's Film Forum -- opened a Pandora's box that will not be closed.
Among those whose faces we see only part of, those who appear only behind screens or with pseudonyms, we follow David, a gay Orthodox Jewish doctor who so much wants to stay within the Orthodox community and not dishonor his parents that he undergoes years of therapy, on the advice of rabbis and other professionals, in hopes that he might be "cured" of his gay-ness. Then there's "Devorah," a married lesbian who still finds strength in the Torah, though she can no longer endure the touch of her husband, and Mark, the first son of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, a drag queen living with AIDS who had abandoned observance after his parents and seven yeshivas threw him out.
Malka and Leah, South Floridians who, growing up in Brooklyn, met at a high school for Orthodox girls and fell in love at a religious summer camp. They're now 30. The camera conceals their identities, but we see them in their North Miami Beach apartment, preparing for the Sabbath. The camera zooms in on Malka's hands as she braids the dough for a challah, the Sabbath bread. The phone rings. It's Malka's estranged parents -- her father is a rabbi -- calling from Brooklyn to wish her a good Sabbath (Shabbos). Malka has been estranged from them, to put it mildly, since "coming out." At the end of a short conversation of obviously forced cordiality, she tells Leah, "It was fine. As always. ... They don't care about me having a good Shabbos, because that means having it with you. I spend the whole day trying to have a good Shabbos, then they call." Then she breaks down.
DuBowski's film project led him to embrace the responsibility and accountability necessary to do justice to people like those who appear in the film, to the issue and the community he was representing. "I spent thousands of hours being filmmaker, peer counselor, rabbi referral service, friend, fundraiser," he says. "I introduced the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi to his partner now of three years, so I was filmmaker/matchmaker as well! I never anticipated how much my life would transform, how I would make a film and it would, in turn, make me."
And then take on a life of its own. At the film's screening at Sundance, DuBowski organized a Mormon-Jewish-gay dialogue, which, he says, "proved that the film resonated beyond Jews, that it really touched anyone who had any experience of faith who felt like an outsider growing up, who came from any community in which they didn't fit. The film speaks to a sense of broken-ness and a sense of outsider-ness, and that dialogue was really a sharing of broken-ness." DuBowski has organized hundreds of screenings in living rooms and Orthodox synagogues, reaching people who generally don't go to movies. Next he's going to be doing a tour of Christian theological seminaries in the American South with Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, who appears in the film as its moral center. DuBowski is also organizing a Buddhist-Jewish dialogue on homosexuality in India. And developing an Orthodox Community Education Project based in Brooklyn, Miami, L.A., London, and Jerusalem, which is proving its effect already. He's trying to form a straight-gay alliance of Orthodox people to develop resources to help the community, using the film as a trigger and a catalyst. And a part of that is the outreach TV project, where he brings TVs in hidden boxes to homes in Orthodox enclaves -- Williamsburg and Borough Park and Crown Heights -- creating small, private home screenings for people who couldn't go see the film at a theatre or don't have TV. Says DuBowski, "I had that TV on my back for the rabbis, and I'm going to throw that TV back on my back to make sure the film reaches the people it is intended to serve. It's very labor intensive, but it's extremely fulfilling."
Austin Chronicle: With so many so closeted, how did you go about finding people to be in your film?
Sandi DuBowski: I was living in Jerusalem, where there was no meeting place for gay and lesbian people besides the park, so I would go to the park where Orthodox men would be cruising, and I would pass out fliers for the film. And some of them would take it under a lamppost and read it, and they would take out a yarmulke from their pocket and show me and then put it right back in. I also put an ad in the paper in Israel and I would get random calls on my mobile phone. I met David because I did a work-in-progress screening in L.A., and David came up to me afterward and said, "I grew up Orthodox, I'm gay, I need to be in this film." Malka and Leah, the Orthodox lesbian couple in the film, found me through this underground Orthodykes Internet activity, and we communicated through instant messaging and e-mail for about two years before we actually met. And then in order to get the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis to be in the film, I had to hide a TV in a box, and sneak it up the stairs to their homes so their neighbors wouldn't see, and show them clips of the film.
AC: What's been the reaction of those in the film to the film?
SD: Not everyone is happy. Mark is now scared that this film is going to mean that he gets kicked out of yeshiva again. And some of the rabbis have now said that the film is biased, it doesn't show gay people who have fought their homosexuality, gotten married, have kids, and are doing fine. So there's some that I'm not speaking to really who asked to be withdrawn from the film. But they signed a release form, and they had full knowledge of what this film was about. You are forging collaborations with people, but at a certain point you do have to define a border and say, you know what, I'm the director and I am making a final decision here.
David pulled out five times. He wanted to be in it, but he was scared of making himself vulnerable, making his private life public. I think he really wrestled -- I think he still wrestles -- I think he really believes in the Jewish principle of Kiboud Av Va-Em -- respecting one's parents -- and he felt like being in the film shamed his family. Finally, at the time we were getting press from The New York Times and Newsweek, we said "David you have to tell your parents you're in this film!" Finally, he did, and then proceeded to tell them which rabbis were also in the film, Rabbi Riskind being one of them. They said, "Oh, Rabbi Riskind's in the film? Oh, it's okay."
Leah and Malka, having witnessed the film's bloom and, meeting others like themselves, have decided to step out of the shadows and leave the closet behind. A few months ago in Atlanta, they did their first public appearance, where they received a three-minute standing ovation. We just flew them to Los Angeles for their first trip to California, and they are doing special Ladies Nights at the theatre and our first screening at a Los Angeles Orthodox synagogue.
Trembling Before G-d will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, April 24, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado. Filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session following the screening. Advance tickets are available for Austin Film Society members only by calling 322-0145. Tickets will go on sale at 6:15pm on the day of the show. Admission prices are $6 per show for the general public; $4 for Austin Film Society and KLRU members and students. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, KLRU-TV, and SXSW Film.