2016-06-30

c. 2001 Religion News Service

NEW YORK -- Sandi DuBowski believes he has not just directed a film.

With a passion unusual even by the standards of the independent film world, DuBowski hopes his recently released documentary, "Trembling Before G-d," will help a growing social movement--or at least prompt a much-needed discussion of a topic long shunned in the Jewish Orthodox and Hasidic communities.

The topic is homosexuality and the religious and cultural barriers that gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews face in integrating their sexuality with their religious traditions to create an affirming spirituality.

"Trembling" was a hit at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this past summer, has been praised by publications ranging from The New York Times to Jewish Week, and continues a successful New York run that began in October and broke opening-day records at New York's Film Forum cinema. The film will have premieres through February in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco.

But it is not merely promoting the film--something all independent filmmakers have to do--that has engaged DuBowski, 31, a Brooklyn-bred Harvard graduate.

Multifaith panels with Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians have accompanied some screenings; with the director present, the film has been shown at New York Jewish community centers, Orthodox synagogues and in private home screenings within the New York Hasidic community. In 2002, DuBowski and Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and one of those interviewed in the film, plan to take "Trembling" on tour to conservative Christian seminaries in the American South.

"Unforeseen promise" is how the young filmmaker describes some of the spontaneous reactions and connections made from the film -- just as he admits that the reviews, screenings and interviews of the last several months have amounted to something of a "wild sprawl."

Wild sprawl, or at least a kind of loving disorder, is apparent in DuBowski's New York City apartment, which on a recent Saturday was strewn with posters and promotional literature.

While DuBowski would soon leave for the film's London and Jerusalem premieres, he clearly relished the chance to talk about what he describes as his "baby" and what he calls the film's two aims: to be a moral witness to lives that have not had much of a public voice and to be something of a catalyst for social change.

Even before the film's release there had been a few signs of such change: An openly gay student recently ran for president of the student government at New York's Yeshiva University. And a group of Orthodox lesbians calling themselves the "Orthodykes" have marched in the annual New York City Gay Pride Parade.

DuBowski said he wants the film to continue those initial steps of raising consciousness. "I want to alleviate pain," he said, adding he thinks one reason for the film's success is that it sheds light on a world that is little-known--even among those in the larger Orthodox community--and in need of healing from much suffering and anguish.

Make that worlds of suffering and anguish: The experiences portrayed in "Trembling" all have at least one thing in common--the struggle of personal identity in the wake of religious prohibition against homosexuality and the conservative social rules of Orthodox and Hasidic communities. Yet each of the stories is distinct and personal.

David, an Orthodox gay man, consciously tried to change his homosexuality, even placing a rubber band around his wrist and snapping it any time he saw an attractive man. David merely ended up with a sore wrist--and eventually accepted he was gay. He is at the center of one of the film's most painful scenes, returning to meet a rabbi to whom he had come out 20 years earlier.

"Malka" and "Leah," a lesbian couple who met when they were in high school in Brooklyn, and Israel, an older gay man in a long-term relationship, are seen having strained and uneasy conversations over the telephone with their parents; Israel has not seen his father for more than 20 years. Others in the film have married to please their families; Mark, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, was forced out of yeshivas in England and Israel for being gay.

DuBowski, who is gay and grew up in a Conservative family that attended synagogue only on holidays, said he realized the project was much more than a film when he heard so many similar stories. Yet few finally agreed to be filmed on camera and some of those who did are only partially seen on-screen.

Gay and lesbian people, DuBowski said, all feel the clash of their internal feelings and the demands of external pressures. But what makes the situation even more dire for Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who discover their homosexuality is that they do so amid a strong communal ethic of marriage and cultural identity.

DuBowski said one of the most oft-asked questions he responds to is why Orthodox gays and lesbians don't simply embrace a more liberal Reform Judaism.

That isn't easy for a number of reasons, he said, and not only because religious identity is so strong and rooted as part of a person's being. Some try but find the Reform services bereft of a kind of richness they experienced in their Orthodox upbringings.

DuBowski's own spiritual journey was defined by the six years of filming and research: once largely unobservant, DuBowski said he found his own spirituality deepening. "It was like an ancient bone in my body was ignited," he said. "My spirituality comes from Orthodoxy."

At least one critic of "Trembling," Rabbi Avi Shafran of the group Agudath Israel of America, praised DuBowski for this admission, saying: "Such Jewish growth is no small thing, and is a true tribute to the man. May he continue to grow as a Jew, and to learn more about Jewish ideals and observance."

But Shafran also criticized the film because, he said, "'Trembling Before G-d' wrongly answers the most important Jewish question imaginable: Is Judaism about what we'd like God to do to accommodate us, or about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do to obey Him?"

DuBowski seems unfazed by such criticism -- he even posted Shafran's remarks on the film's Web site (www.tremblingbeforeg-d.com). Continuing the long and proud Jewish tradition of "grappling with texts," DuBowski said he welcomes all comments and reactions to begin what he called a much-needed dialogue on how Orthodox and Hasidic gays and lesbians can find a sense of peace and affirmation.

"The film is posing questions, not giving answers," he said. At the center of the film itself--even its title "Trembling Before G-d"--is the ancient Jewish belief that it is not possible to utter God's name.

What DuBowski called that "gap" represents not only the mystery of the divine but also the mystery of sexuality and of things that are not known. "It can be a holy statement to say, 'I don't know and I have to learn.'"

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