"Trembling Before G_d"

God or gay? The Orthodox Jewish subjects of this documentary want it both ways.

Published October 26, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

You have to feel a measure of sympathy for the Jewish men and women featured in Sandi Simcha DuBowski's documentary "Trembling Before G_d." These gay and lesbian Hasidic and Orthodox Jews have been effectively shut out of practicing their religion in any public way, since, according to most interpretations, homosexuality is forbidden by the Torah.

But before too long, their effervescently hopeful naiveté, and their plaintive if completely justified hand-wringing, becomes just plain wearying. It seems to be news to these people that the major religions of the world were designed specifically to shut their kind out; discouraging sexual "aberration" is historically one of the significant social functions of organized religion. That's not to say it's right, or that it isn't inherently hurtful to individuals who yearn to belong. But at what point should one's instincts for maintaining sanity kick in? By the end of "Trembling Before G_d," you desperately wish that at least some of DuBowski's subjects would see the light.

A few of them do. DuBowski's film is workmanlike and steadfastly well-intentioned, and his sympathy for these "lost" Jews is clear. There's Michelle, a lesbian who grew up Hasidic in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Boro Park; she had the courage to get out of her deeply conventional marriage, but her family has practically disowned her. In one touching sequence, she hovers at the fringe of a carnival where Hasidic parents and their kids are enjoying rides and playing arcade games. With a nervous giggle, she finally suggests gamely to the cameraman that they walk right through. "Seems like a lot of these kids are a lot happier than I was," she reflects wistfully but not bitterly. Instead of demanding that her religion allow her to fit in, she's taken the sadder but probably healthier route of accepting that it won't.

But most of the others DuBowski includes in the film struggle so valiantly against the unbeatable tide that they simply wear you out. David, a good-looking Los Angeleno, fights back tears when he revisits the rabbi to whom he'd turned for help 20 years earlier, only to be given a slightly different version of the heartbreaking advice he'd received the first time. (The first time, the rabbi had tried to get him psychiatric help so he could be "reconditioned"; this time, he tells David he needs to be celibate if he wants to be a good Jew.) David also recalls that one rabbi told him to eat figs ("or dates -- I forget which," he says, rolling his eyes, getting one of the few laughs in a movie that's mostly entirely too self-serious) in order to become straight. Such is the advice doled out by some very well-intentioned servants of God. With friends like these, He sure doesn't need enemies.

DuBowski strives for balance, interviewing one openly gay rabbi and several rabbis who are sympathetic to gay men and lesbians, as well as several who insist on interpreting the Torah more strictly. Sometimes his filmmaking techniques could use more refinement. He's a little too creative in dealing with the challenges presented by the need to preserve the identity of some of his interviewees: He shows just the mouth of one woman as she vigorously chews on a piece of food, and hides two women's faces behind a giant plant so that it looks as if it's talking. (With God, all things are possible!) That's frustrating, because DuBowski proves elsewhere he can do so much better: He uses a simple and visually stunning technique to great effect, filming his subjects behind translucent scrims so we see only their silhouettes.

There are plenty of reasons people gravitate toward religion, many of them inexplicable but some very clear: For one thing, religion represents ties to family and tradition, and people can feel unmoored and lost when those ties are severed. But the figure in "Trembling Before G_d" who makes the most sense -- and who earns the most sympathy -- is 58-year-old Israel, who asks rhetorically, "How can you be queer and Orthodox at the same time?" He reluctantly withdrew from his faith instead of trying to wrench its tenets into alignment with his sexuality -- or, worse, attempting to deny his sexuality for the sake of his religion.

DuBowski doesn't downplay Israel's suffering, but he doesn't fixate on it, either, suggesting that every gay and lesbian Jew has to make tough choices for him- or herself. Even so, clamoring to be part of a group that won't have you is a sure route to emotional exhaustion. You wish that at least some of the men and women we meet here would take a tip from Groucho, who once said that he didn't care to belong to any club that would have him as a member. It just might be their salvation.

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By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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