Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Across the Former Soviet Union Film Helps Ukrainians Confront Views on Judaism, Homosexuality

April 6, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Audiences of different faiths and ages in Ukraine packed premiers of a documentary that explores Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality. But some of the better known Jewish institutions in the country refused to host the showings of “Trembling Before G-d,” saying the topic was too controversial.

Those who agreed to host the film say they believe a discussion of the thorny topic is needed in Ukraine.

“This is just a beginning. Ukraine really needs these types of movies,” said Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine.

The filmmaker, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, and Rabbi Steven Greenberg, believed to be the first Orthodox rabbi ever to openly declare his homosexuality, spent two weeks in March in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and the southern port city of Odessa showing the movie and talking to people in theaters, community centers and on television.

During their trip, the 2001 documentary portraying gay Orthodox Jews who struggle to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation, was shown in the former Soviet Union for the first time.

Hostility and bias toward gays and lesbians in Ukraine is still commonplace, as it is in many other parts of the former Soviet Union.

“The attitude toward gays and lesbians has changed but not enough, some gay people believe,” said Anatoliy Yarema, a TV host and reporter.

Ukraine decriminalized homosexuality — treated during Communism as a punishable offense — in 1991, the year of Ukrainian independence.

Yarema, who had Dubowski and Greenberg on the air of his TV show “One Plus One,” said that “it is still very difficult” to be openly gay in Ukraine.

Stas Naumenko, the editor of the One of Us gay-interest magazine, said that there still is a “passive resistance” toward gay people in post-Communist Ukraine.

As if to prove the thesis that gay people do not often feel comfortable here, many of those who attended the screening of “Trembling Before G-d” in Kiev’s House of Cinema preferred to leave the theater shortly before the lights went on and the discussion started.

And yet, compared to other FSU states, Ukraine is considered to be one of the most advanced in its attitude toward gays and lesbians.

There are a few gay and lesbian publications, One of Us and, a few gay bars and a night club in Kiev and, of course, Internet sites. In September 2003, the first, albeit small, public gay pride demonstration was held in Kiev.

More than 100 people attended the premiers in Kiev and Odessa. Fewer attended other screenings, and only about 20-25 people attended the events hosted by Jewish organizations.

Attempts were made to screen the film in a number of Jewish community institutions, but many of them refused to get involved.

Most Jewish leaders approached thought the subject was too controversial. Others were cautious for religious reasons or displayed some bias.

“At first we didn’t know what this film was really about. Now we refuse to screen it in our institute because we are not going to propagate such things,” said Leonid Finberg, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies in Kiev.

Kiev’s Solomon University also refused to host a screening.

“Most people in Ukraine still don’t understand the problem because of their upbringing, elements of Soviet mentality and fear, because homosexuals were persecuted in the Soviet Union,” said Vladimir Schukin, a Jewish psychiatrist.

At a screening at the Odessa Jewish community center a Chasidic man cautioned Greenberg and Dubowski: “You will be beaten here.”

But no violence took place, and this attitude was the exception among those, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who came to see the film.

“A remarkable film for thoughtful people of different beliefs, one of the best and bravest,” said Yulia Voronova, a student.

A young Jewish leader said the movie helped him come to terms with his own prejudices.

“I had a negative attitude” toward gay people, said Aleksey Gaidar, an activist with the Netzer Jewish youth club in Kiev. “But the movie touched me.”

Recommended from JTA