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Arts & Culture Film About Gay Orthodox Jews Makes Waves As It Makes Rounds

November 22, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews already has opened some eyes.

Now he hopes to change some minds.

“Trembling Before G-d,” which was shown to much acclaim earlier this year at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals, broke opening day box office records at Manhattan’s Film Forum when it opened last month.

The film “latches on to a provocative subject and invests it with a compelling tenderness,” reviewer Elvis Mitchell wrote in The New York Times.

DuBowski, who is gay, is pleased with the success of his film, especially since it was seven years in the making.

“I call this the Mt. Everest of documentaries because it was so difficult to make,” he says.

Aside from the financial challenges that most documentary filmmakers face, DuBowski had to convince his subjects to come out of the closet and speak on camera — although several still wouldn’t let their real names or faces be used.

But he eventually persuaded several gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, in the United States and Israel, to talk about their struggles to merge their sexual identities with their desires for Jewish observance and community.

Among them are:

Mark, a gay man kicked out of several yeshivas in England and Israel for his homosexual practices;

A lesbian couple in Miami who met at a girls yeshiva in Brooklyn;

David, who confronts a Chasidic rabbi who 20 years ago recommended that David see a therapist to change his homosexual leanings.

DuBowski intersperses their stories with comments from Orthodox rabbis and psychotherapists.

“When you put a human face on what has until now been a very abstract issue, it creates a dilemma. But that’s what I feel the halachic process is about,” he says, referring to Jewish law.

Part of the film’s strength derives from its compassion. While sympathetic to the gays and lesbians who are the film’s focus, “Trembling Before G-d” also depicts the Orthodox world with admiration, even love.

The rabbi who meets with David is shown struggling between his love for David as a Jew and his desire to adhere to the Torah.

“There’s a great passion and a great truth in Orthodoxy,” says DuBowski, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Brooklyn and has studied Chumash for two years with a gay Orthodox rabbi.

“Every community is capable of change, and if I didn’t believe so, I don’t think I could have done the film. To think that the Orthodox community, unlike other communities, isn’t capable of change is to demonize and dehumanize” them, he says.

Armed with grants from Stephen Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and other philanthropies, DuBowski is developing a project to help catalyze that change. He’s taking the film on the road, showing it to as many members of the Orthodox community as possible.

At the heart of the issue is a passage in Leviticus that states the traditional Jewish position clearly: “It is an abomination for a man to lie with a man as he lies with a woman.”

Given that bluntness, it’s unclear what room there is for change.

A recent screening at an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx shows the obstacles DuBowski faces.

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, known for creating high-level synagogue positions for women in roles traditionally reserved for men, is considered to be one of the more liberal Orthodox congregations in the country,

More than 500 people — most of them middle-aged, some of the men in brightly colored knitted yarmulkes — attended the screening.

The audience members clearly know American Jewish life. The crowd murmured when a lesbian couple in the movie says they met at Bais Yaakov, a girls yeshiva in Brooklyn.

When Michelle, another lesbian in the film, laughs as she says, “Being a lesbian and being Chasidic is not an option,” the audience laughed along with her.

During a post-film discussion, panelists went to great lengths to emphasize the need for discussion and tolerance.

“The mandate of the Orthodox community is to welcome homosexuals to our shuls. One of our real challenges is that heretofore we have not been that welcoming,” the Hebrew Institute’s rabbi, Avi Weiss, said, though he did not condone homosexuality.

Many audience members spoke sympathetically about gays and lesbians, saying the Orthodox community must show flexibility.

Near the end of the evening, however, one older man threw some cold water on the love fest.

“To me, a rabbi who eats hazer,” or pork, “can’t be called Orthodox,” he said. “Yet we have in this film — and throughout this room — that a rabbi who is homosexual can be called Orthodox.”

Later, one panel member praised “conversion therapy,” which aims to change a homosexual into a heterosexual.

Even the Hebrew Institute’s assistant rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, who organized the screening and discussion, admitted there’s only so far he’ll go. He is open to discussion on the issue, Herzfeld said, but he emphasized, “Rabbinic Judaism is the rule that I follow. And Rabbinic Judaism is clear on homosexuality.”

Herzfeld isn’t the only member of the Orthodox community to have problems with accepting homosexuality.

A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox organization, disseminated an Op-Ed criticizing “Trembling Before G-d.”

In the article, spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran cites a rabbi who appears in the film, Aharon Feldman, as saying that the movie does not adequately show the compassion that Orthodox rabbis feel for “those who are challenged with a homosexual orientation.”

Shafran also says the film fails to take seriously the achievements of conversion therapy.

DuBowski, however, says many gays and lesbians who tried to change their orientation have failed, and now are trapped in unhappy heterosexual marriages.

But DuBowski doesn’t mind the controversy; if anything, he seems to relish it. After the panel discussion, he lamented that it hadn’t been as lively as a recent showing of the film in Borough Park, a fervently Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn.

He prefers to focus on his successes. One of the people portrayed in”Trembling Before G-d,” Rabbi Steve Greenberg, came out of the closet while the film was being made. Another, Mark, returned to yeshiva study.

In San Francisco, an Orthodox rabbi appeared at a panel after a screening and apologized to David — one of the characters in the film — for the way the community had treated him. And one Chicago-based rabbi who saw the film in Jerusalem wrote a letter to his congregation about the need to be more accepting of gays and lesbians.

Meanwhile, the world of homosexual Orthodox Jewish support groups — such as the OrthoDykes — is growing, DuBowski says.

As the word gets out, he said, “you can see that world getting bigger.”

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