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Being Gay and Godly:
Trembling Before G-d

By Fredric Rissover

Fredric Rissover studied English at the University of Cincinnati and film and journalism at the University of Iowa. He retired after 35 years on the faculty of St. Louis Community College, Meramec, where he taught courses in writing, creative writing, literature, media and film. As an adjunct faculty member he taught film history at Washington University in St. Louis. For over 20 years he has written about movies for gay publications. Currently he contributes to The Vital Voice, a gay and lesbian newspaper out of St. Louis.


Is it possible to be a devout Orthodox or Hasidic Jew and, at the same time, to be homosexual? The problems incurred by gay men and Lesbians who are trying to reconcile these seemingly antithetical parts of their lives is the subject of a fascinating and emotionally moving documentary called Trembling Before G-d. ("God" is not spelled out because Orthodox Jews believe that the name of the Almighty is too sacred to be spoken or written.)

Included in last fall's St. Louis Film Festival, Trembling was shown again as the closing feature of the 7th Annual Jewish Film Festival of St. Louis, at 8 PM on Thursday, June 13, at Landmarkís Plaza Frontenac Cinema. And the director, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, was present to take part in a discussion following the screening.

DuBowkiís work on Trembling began in 1995, after he met Mark, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, at the International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews. Mark had been thrown out of several religious schools because of his sexual orientation. He and DuBowski became study partners, traveling around the world on religious pilgrimages, seeking out rabbis and religious communities, and eventually, filming.

During the next five years, DuBowski crisscrossed the globe talking to and filming Hasidic, Orthodox and formerly Orthodox Lesbians and gay men, learning of their joys and sorrows. This project required numerous flyers and newspaper ads, TV and print coverage, e-mail forwarding, word-of-mouth, and non-stop networking in person and over the internet. The effort yielded a film with interviews and filmed episodes featuring over a dozen gay and lesbian Jews in the U.S. and Israel, some open and others who are filmed in silhouette with their voices changed.

Included in the film are DuBowskiís friend Mark, persevering and optimistic despite numerous setbacks, and Michelle, the daughter of a Hasidic cantor, who was disowned by her family for being a Lesbian. We also meet Lesbian couples in New York and Jerusalem, a gay man who has had a male lover for 25 years but is still trying to communicate with his 98-year-old father, a psychotherapist who runs a confidential support group for Orthodox gay men, and an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, Steven Greenberg, who has written a book about the Bible, Jewish tradition and homosexuality. Greenberg is currently seeking a publisher.

The interviews are enlightening, sometimes encouraging, and often heartbreaking. Trembling Before G-d is a powerful testament to the struggle of people who want to reconcile their religious beliefs with their proscribed sexual orientations. If the film has a weakness, it may be that it does not explore reasons why traditional Judaism is so negative about homosexuality, as are some conservative Christian denominations and Moslem sects. Knowing these reasons and their historical and cultural roots could be enlightening, and might even help to promote tolerance and understanding.

DuBowski says, "Trembling Before G-d was my film school and my religious training wrapped up in one." Like all independent filmmakers, Dubowski learned the skills of fund raising, which gained him the support of over two dozen foundations and hundreds of individual donors. As a creative filmmaker, he devised a way to compensate for the fact that few people dared to be open to the camera and that he could not film on religious holy days. To represent all the unseen people and events, DuBowski gathered people on a sound stage to create giant silhouetted tableaux of Orthodox and Hasidic lifeófrom a Hasidic mother and her family celebrating the Sabbath to a lively Orthodox wedding.

To grow as a Jew, DuBowski began studying the Torah with a Hasidic gay man and attending an underground Sabbath dinners for Orthodox gay men in New York. In Israel, he organized an underground Sabbath celebration for over twenty Orthodox gay men and Lesbians who had never met each other.

DuBowski's efforts as a documentary filmmaker have had significant consequences. He managed to gather the first filmed interviews from Orthodox rabbis about how they grapple with the issue of homosexuality in terms of both Jewish law and the Jewish community, thus beginning a valuable archive that he plans to expand. Says DuBowski, "My work as a director on Trembling Before G-d has been inseparable at times from my role as . . . community organizer, referral service, peer counseloróeven [matchmaker]. I helped found a West Coast support group for Orthodox gays and lesbians in Los Angeles [and] I introduced the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi to his partnerócelebrating two years and counting!"

Trembling Before G-d is the recipient of the Vito Russo Award from the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. It was also selected for inclusion in the Sundance Film Festival, The 2001 Berlin Film Festival, and the 2001 Turin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Italy. In both Berlin and Turin, the film was named Best Documentary, and it received Special Mention from the International Federation of Film Societies. Recently, Dubowski was proud to receive support from Stephen Spielberg's Righteous Person Foundation.

Last year Trembling traveled to Europe, Mexico, Australia, and Israel. This year, Sandi DuBowski has been showing his award-winning film across the U.S. and in Canada. (When I spoke to DuBowsky by phone, he was in Santa Fe.) In some places, the film was not well received. In Baltimore, for example, Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians combined forces to protest the film. "We provoked interfaith intolerance," jokes DuBowski. In Toronto, DuBowski and friends were kicked out of a synagogue.

But, for the most part, the response to Trembling has been tremendously positive. "When the burden of secrecy is lifted, it releases a roller coaster of emotions", says DuBowski. The film has been shown in fourteen Orthodox synagogues. In Dayton, Ohio, he was thanked by a transgendered Holocaust survivor. At the Sundance Festival, he was hugged by a Pakistani Moslem. In Salt Lake City the film stimulated a Mormon and Jewish Gay dialog. "This film is for
everyone," DuBowski says, "not just Jews." Next fall, Dubowski will take his film to Christian religious seminaries in the U.S. Soon the film will go into general release. People need to hear and see the "testimony of individual human experience," DuBowski believes. "Religious texts need to be humanized, and hearts need to be broken."

"I plan to continue showing my film," DuBowski states. "Each screening makes me proud. It's a gift and a blessing. I have a book possibility, and a sequel is in the works, but I'm in no hurry. Everything will happen in Godís time." So far, DuBowski has received over 800 pages of e-mail. Anyone wishing to respond to the film or communicate with the filmmaker may do so via his web site www.TremblingBeforeG-d.com.


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002