You Don't Have to Be Jewish

A description of sandi Simcha DuBowski's documentary Trembling Before
G-d
sounds like the start of a bad ethnic joke: Did you hear the one about the
gay Orthodox Jew? The film, however, is no joke at all, as it focuses on the dire
plight of religiously devout Jewish homosexuals.

Shot in ghoulish yellow shades, the movie is also no great shakes at the
stylistic level. Both visually and verbally, in fact, it's remarkably
ugly--informed, it seems, by the no-frills aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, that
characterizes much of contemporary Orthodox life. Many of DuBowski's subjects
appear uneasy in their bodies. The women, in particular, tend to be overweight or
draped in huge, tentlike outfits. And most of the people interviewed speak the
ingrown, unrefined language of the modern Ashkenazi ghetto. DuBowski relies on
the usual parade of talking heads and on a series of rather sentimental shots of
Jerusalem at sunset and other illustrative sequences showing "typical" religious
scenes in silhouette. The hiddenness of the figures here is clearly meant to be
symbolic--by the end of the film, we grasp the deeper logic of this
technique--yet for the most part, it registers as a kitsch effect, a strained
attempt perhaps to echo the traditional Jewish folk art of paper cutouts.

But none of this really matters. The unblinking honesty of those interviewed
and the director's willingness to probe with wide-ranging sympathy this
tremendously complex and difficult subject amply compensate for the film's formal
crudeness. Trembling is a potent, painful document--and one that's
fascinating for the way that it poses explicitly Jewish questions as it also
reckons with more universal and heartrending concerns.

On the parochial front, there is something undeniably, almost paradigmatically
Jewish about the nature of the Solomonic conundrum at the core of the film.
Homosexuality is, needless to say, forbidden in the Bible. The movie begins with
a somber black screen on which we read the Levitical injunction regarding "a man
who lies with a man as one lies with a woman" and the blunt declaration that
"they shall be put to death, their blood is on them." Though the Mosaic death
penalty is no longer handed down in religious Jewish circles (nor are the
lashings prescribed in the Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth-century rabbinic code,
for "women who rub against each other"), one married ultra-Orthodox lesbian
featured in the film is terrified to come out for fear that her children will be
taken from her. This, too, is a death sentence of sorts.

The history of Judaism, though, is loud with the voices of competing (and
sometimes conflicting) interpretations of the Law. In this way, the questions
posed by the subjects of Trembling come directly out of a long tradition
of rabbinic sifting, parsing, and weighing of priorities. Is it--a slender,
handsome, and very religious thirty-something gay named David asks--more
important not to lie with a man or not to be alone? As one of the other
interviewees, a rabbi, points out, God arranges for Adam to have Eve's company
before He gets around to doing much else in the Bible.

David's case is especially poignant. One of the most self-aware figures in the
film, he knows exactly who and what he is, yet he still hasn't arrived at any
satisfactory conclusions about how best to live as a homosexual and a practicing
Jew. The film follows him through his agonized attempts to strike a reasonable
balance between these apparently clashing sides of his personality, both of which
he is absolutely committed to. For all his suffering, he comes across as a
knowing young man with a sharp sense of humor and a fairly wrenching ability to
articulate the inner turmoil he's experiencing as he's experiencing it.

He is able, for instance, to describe for the camera his enormously mixed
feelings toward the rabbis and psychologists who advised him for years to try and
"cure" himself of his gayness by eating figs, reciting psalms, and practicing a
preposterous sort of behavior-modification therapy that entailed flicking a
rubber band on his wrist or biting his tongue every time he saw an attractive
man. Not surprisingly, David says with a rueful little laugh, soon "my wrist was
hurting." But when he returns in the course of the film to confront one of these
rabbis with the failure of the treatment, he still seems hungry for his
professional advice. "Must I," he wonders aloud, as much to himself as to the
rabbi, "live a celibate existence, by myself? Is that my lot? Is that what I'm
supposed to have in this life?"

A certain masochism may attend David's return to the rabbi, whose dubious if
well-meaning counsel was the source of much of his misery; but David's need to
learn to live amicably with himself and his warring impulses is so great that he
seems willing to put aside his own obvious bitterness and continue to ask. And it
is in this very act of asking that he and the others featured in DuBowski's film
are engaged in the most Jewish of acts: attempting to read the real world and its
myriad complications and paradoxes through the lens of these ancient precepts.
David is not looking for a loophole or a route around the Law. He believes in
Judaism's vision and cannot accept the idea that it would reject such a central
part of him. Convinced of its inherent humanism, he longs for the text itself to
save him.

For most non-Jewish or non-Orthodox viewers, it is naturally much harder to
understand why a man like David would remain in the fold at all. Why not just
embrace his gayness openly, cut loose, and turn his back on the entire punishing,
pious package? In answer to this, the film presents another figure: Israel--a
caustic, tortured, and wonderfully vital middle-aged man who long ago left
Orthodoxy "in order to maintain my sanity and my selfhood" but who remains as
flamboyantly Jewish as he is flamboyantly queer (his own adjective of choice).

Israel appears to have found a kind of peace. He both lives with his boyfriend
of 25 years and runs an outfit called Big Knish tours, which brings groups on
guided trips through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of his Brooklyn childhood.
Yet it's startling to hear how he segues from a rant about his excruciating
youth, attempted suicide, hospitalization, and forced electroshock therapy to a
tender, almost whispered confession that all he really wants is for his
father--with whom he hasn't spoken in more than two decades--to sing him a
Sabbath song about the angels. He admits this wish with perfect
self-consciousness, understanding full well its infantile nature: "I'm 58 years
old, and I still want my daddy."

Besides David and Israel, the movie introduces us to a varied cast of
characters, each canny or moving in her or his way, and each of whom walks daily
across a private minefield of guilt and grief. One young lesbian couple met in
their ultra-Orthodox girls' high school and now live a traditional religious life
together. As a pair, they seem happy as could be. Their agony comes from the
outside--from one of the women's parents, who simply cannot come to terms with
the fact that she's gay and whose impromptu phone call in the middle of filming
prompts a torrent of tears.

Mark, meanwhile, is the HIV-positive son of a London rabbi; he was sent to
Israel by his religious teachers, who believed he'd be safe there since, of
course, no gays live in the Holy Land. "Big mistake," says Mark, grinning as he
explains that he came out just as soon as he touched down--encouraged by the
openness (and, presumably, the defiance) of the gay community there.

Much of the force of DuBowski's film creeps up on us as the realization of a
cruel irony: that these gays and lesbians--whose very existence as sexual
creatures damns them in the eyes of the religious establishment and, in many
cases, of their own families--are in fact so much purer in their devotion and
practice than many "normative" observant Jews, who perform the commandments as
robots on a spiritual assembly line. Even Israel, who years ago gave up the
strict behavioral patterns of Orthodox life, insists with total conviction: "I
know I live in my faith." We believe him.

But beyond its sectarian relevance, the movie suggests a startling range of
other implications that reach far beyond the specific question of homosexuality
and its relationship to Orthodox Judaism. The film is really posing a much
steeper question about the place of traditional religious practice in the
post-postmodern twenty-first century. Though neither gay nor Orthodox myself, I
felt, watching the film, a bedrock sort of empathy for--no, identification
with--the people featured in Trembling Before G-d. Their uneasy exile from
the conventional forms of organized religion seems extremely familiar.

And in some sense, their exile is not only religious; it's also tribal. As
such, they represent all alienated people with deep collective yearnings: people
for whom standard (or exclusive) institutionalized belonging is not the answer,
yet for whom the impulse toward some broader and more nourishing connection--be
it social, spiritual, linguistic, or cultural--remains intense. (Events since
September 11 have only underscored the fact that the vast majority of Americans
fit into this category.)

The poise with which these Orthodox gays assert their intricate, hybrid
identities makes them models for the rest of us, many of whom are also defined by
elaborate webs of affiliation. As people who live in two psychic lands at once,
they possess the ability to translate or make human each of these realms for the
other. Perhaps this is what Israel means when he announces that he "feels ...
part of a community ... [that] has something to teach the world." While at first
he sounds as though he's describing being part of the Jewish community (a
putative light unto the nations), it turns out that he means being gay and
Jewish. For him, the two do not contradict each other but belong on the same
continuum: both set him apart; both are inherent to his being; both require of
him a constant and acute awareness of his place in society. The emotional--even
prophetic--thrust of his words informs the whole of this strange and powerful
movie.

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