The Closeted World of Gay Orthodox Jews
A review of the film Trembling Before G-d, 2001; New Yorker Video; DVD; $39.95
By Marcela Kogan
In a small room in Jerusalem, Hasidic men are rocking back and forth, clutching their prayer books to their chest, rubbing ice cubes on their foreheads. They have come to the Atonement Ceremony for Sexual Sins, an ancient ritual, to repent for harboring sexual thoughts, to cool their passions. Most attend the ceremony to repent for the sin of lusting after women — but a few atone for lusting after men.
Trembling Before G-D, an 84-minute documentary film by Sandi Simcha DuBowski, introduces viewers to the troubled, conflicted world of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews who must reconcile their sexual identity with their religious beliefs. Alienated from their families and shunned by their community, these Jews cling to their traditions and religious practices and call out to be accepted. Many of them have confronted rabbis with their dilemma, but most rabbis haven’t helped.
The DVD version of the film, recently released, includes special features such as interviews with the film’s director and a conversation with Rabbi Steve Greenberg (the first openly gay Orthodox Rabbi), as well as deleted scenes and a look at the life-changing movement of the film. Other special features include a description of the Atonement Ceremony for Sexual Sins, and a list of International Resources, Links and a Glossary.
DuBowski spent more than five years making the film, shooting it in the United States, Israel and Britain. He met many of the film’s subjects through an underground Orthodykes internet activity, and communicated through email with some of the people for several years before they met. Many of the film’s subjects appear in a silhouette, with their voices disguised, because they feared repercussions if their identities were revealed.
The documentary is built around intimately-told personal stories of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews who refuse to give up their traditions. David, an orthodox gay man, came out to his Chabad Rabbi in Israel who suggested David eat figs, try therapy and flick a rubber band around his wrist every time he felt an attraction toward a man. David returns to Israel two decades later with the film crew. “What do I do?” David asks the same Chabad Rabbi. “Do I live my life alone?” The rabbi acknowledges David’s sincerity, but admits he doesn’t know how to help him.
Mark, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, gets kicked out of Yeshivas in Israel and England for his homosexual activity. He turns to bars and dresses in drag — eventually contracting AIDS. In the film, Mark is followed on his return to the Yeshiva world and his re-embrace of Orthodoxy. “I’ve wasted 7 years of my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t be HIV positive if I had stayed in Yeshiva. I lost my Torah and I better learn it again.”
Malka and Leah, who became high-school sweethearts in Brooklyn’s Bais Yaakov, an ultra-Orthodox girl’s school, have been together for 12 years. But they’ve been disowned by their families. “Being a lesbian and a Hassid is not an option,” says one of the women, braiding a challah while comforting a lesbian friend over the phone who wants to leave her husband but fears losing her children.
Refusing to seek refuge in more liberal Jewish circles, the Hasidim featured in the film challenge the rabbis to reconsider interpretations of Jewish law to accommodate homosexuality. But many rabbis are truly baffled by the instinctual nature of sexuality, and they don’t understand why men would want to have sex with other men. “It’s an illogical urge,” an Orthodox man tells a well-known rabbi in Israel. “There is no rhyme or reason for it. It’s something brought down from above.”
The movie ends with a silhouetted scene of a family celebrating the Shabbat rituals. As the mother lights the candles and the father places his hands over each child to give his blessing, the viewers get a glimpse into the beauty and grace of a tradition that has survived thousands of years. When the Torah was written, says one of the film’s narrators, little was known about homosexuality. But with the new knowledge comes new responsibility — and more understanding.
In the meantime, however, gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews are left in limbo. David feels his choice is to remain celibate or sever his commitment to God. He cannot find relief at the Atonement Ceremony. “A sin is something you have a choice to do or not to do,” he says in an interview. He didn’t choose to be gay, therefore he has nothing to repent for — no ritual will help him cleanse his soul.
The movie provokes more questions than it answers. But the dialogue between the Jewish community’s most religious gay and lesbian Jews and their leader has begun — and so has the hope that, with understanding, compassion will follow. “A holy man doesn’t give up on his people,” said one religious leader interviewed during the film. The underlying message of the film is this: Religious people won’t give up on their traditions either.
Marcela Kogan is a freelance writer in Maryland.
Source: Written exclusively for the JVL