The words contain such pain, even though they come from one of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept, when we remembered Zion.” It’s the lament of Jewish exiles, at the end of a song cycle of love, loss and longing for home, one central to the Jewish experience.
It also sums the experience of Jewish Orthodox homosexuals who love their faith and want desperately to be reconciled to it.
Unfortunately, another sacred passage, from Leviticus, complicates matters: “A man who lies with a man as one lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination, they shall be put to death, their blood is on them.” While there is actually no record of Jewish homosexuals ever being killed in accordance with this decree, gays and lesbians in modern Jewish Orthodox communities face a fate that is in some ways analogous: banishment from their families and communities.
The struggle of Orthodox gays and lesbians to reconcile their sexual identities with their religious ones is the subject of Trembling Before G-d, an emotional, thoughtful and award-winning documentary. Director Sandi Simcha DuBowski and Rabbi Steve Greenberg, one of the film’s subjects, will make two appearances in conjunction with the film’s opening in the region this week. The two will host the 7 p.m. Wednesday screening at Cary’s Madstone Theater; Thursday, they’ll appear at the 7:30 performance at Durham’s Carolina Theatre. Audience question and answer sessions will follow both showings.
DuBowski was a 24-year-old gay filmmaker, and a Conservative Jew, when he met Mark, an Orthodox, HIV-positive drag queen who had been booted out of seven yeshivas for his homosexual activities. He became DuBowski’s window into the shrouded, secretive homosexual community within the defiantly traditionalist world of Orthodox Jewry.
DuBowski spent six years documenting that community, eventually trimming 450 hours of footage into this compelling 84-minute documentary.
Speaking from an appearance on behalf of the film in Boulder, Co., DuBowski explained the significance of the title. “It’s part of the image of Orthodox Jews, as those who tremble before God,” DuBowski said. The incomplete spelling is a reference to the unknowability of the deity, but DuBowski adds that the dash also symbolizes “the mystery of sexuality, the mystery that is at the core of Leviticus.”
Many of the subjects in the film appear in silhouette, with disguised voices. One of these, a middle-aged Jerusalem housewife known as “Devorah,” is particularly heartbreaking. She describes her emotional and sexual estrangement from her husband, her unmet desire for female companionship and her inability to carry on.
Other subjects chose to appear undisguised before the camera. One, David, describes spending 12 years in various therapeutic regimens, trying to make himself straight. Late in the film, DuBowski’s camera documents a confrontation between David and the rabbi who had urged him to seek counseling in the first place. Elsewhere, a man in his 60s still tries to reconcile with a 98-year-old father he hasn’t seen in 20 years, despite living only a few miles away.
Obviously, people of lesser faith would abandon a religious culture that denigrates them. But the subjects profiled in Trembling Before G-d are searching for ways they can exercise their faith, while remaining true to their sexual identities. A lesbian couple, “Malka” and “Leah,” organize their lives together in strict accordance with Jewish law. Yet every phone call from home remains a screw-turning exercise in emotional torture, as Malka’s family refuses to acknowledge her partner.
The Levitican law seems unambiguous and incontrovertible. Still, not all scriptural analysts agree on its meaning. Some believe its original language refers only to temple prostitution, not to homosexuality per se. Others find different proscriptions in the text. In the end, DuBowski suggests that good faith and a willingness to consider one’s beliefs critically might provide the means by which people with variant interpretations could be reconciled.
Trembling Before G–d is no blanket excoriation of Jewish Orthodoxy or even generalized religious oppression. Instead, it is testimony to the enormous power of the Jewish faith, and the fervent love that the film’s subjects have for it, even though their sexual preferences make it difficult for them to participate fully in its exercise. Indeed, Mark, one of the most embattled and rebellious subjects in the film, concludes, “At the end of the day, being a Jew is such a nice present to receive.”
Considering the years he spent documenting the difficult lives of Orthodox gays and lesbians, it doesn’t seem odd that Sandi DuBowski himself experienced a religious awakening while making the film. What may be surprising, though, is that DuBowski, formerly a Conservative Jew, is now himself Orthodox.
“The film made me more religious,” DuBowski says. “I encountered a whole world of Sabbath and holidays and Torah-learning, a whole community of people who are very spiritual, questing, curious and passionate about Judaism and God. It ignited my own religiosity.”
Though many in the community his film documents are unrelentingly hostile to homosexuality, DuBowski claims to have found “a unique portal into [Orthodoxy], which would be the Orthodox gay and lesbian world. … I entered from the outside, so I was spared a lot of the trauma that many of the people I met had gone through.”
The Harvard-educated DuBowski may have some serious spiritual issues on his agenda. Still, he’s also very much the indie filmmaker, struggling to carve out his own niche in the brutal film marketplace. Noting the awesome power that commercial films have, weekend after weekend, DuBowski says he’s “interested in redefining what distribution is about.”
Though the film opened over a year ago at New York’s famed Film Forum, where it smashed box office records, DuBowski has taken his campaign to promote the film to regional markets. His appearance this week comes as part of an autumn swing through the South.
“We’re trying to grow it,” he says. “I really want to use the cinematic space and reinvigorate it. I want to create cross-community dialogue and networks of support.”
Having made appearances all over the country and the world, he’s found that his film resonates with Christians and Muslims as well.
But not everyone has welcomed DuBowski’s message. He and his film have been banned from some Orthodox synagogues. Trembling Before G-d has been banned in Mexico City, and the filmmaker has been denounced in the pages of the Jerusalem Post for not taking the idea of sexual conversion seriously.
To his credit, DuBowski hasn’t–and won’t–be content with merely preaching to the choir. During his Southern tour, DuBowski is taking his film to several famous Christian seminaries. He appears at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., later this fall.
Intimidating as some of these destinations may seem, they are inevitable ones in DuBowski’s effort to stimulate community dialogue and increased cross-cultural understanding.
“We had a discussion last night in Boulder that was beautiful and very powerful,” DuBowski recalls. “The movie’s not done when the credits roll … the movie’s just begun! That’s when the conversation begins. And that’s when the movie has really begun.”
For more information about the film, go online to