Trembling Before G-D Review

It would be glib, if accurate, to say that Trembling Before G-D is the best documentary ever made about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hassidic Jews, but there’s something about Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s extraordinarily moving film that defies such superficial summary. At a time when the documentary form has become one of the most interesting forms of cinema, this disturbing and often deeply affecting study of an area of life which was hitherto alien to me is, alongside The Fog of War and Spellbound one of the best. It would be easy to dismiss it as a film which is only of interest to homosexual Jews but that’s utter nonsense – to empathise with the people depicted in the film, you simply have to be human.

The issue at the heart of the film is simple. Is it possible to be both an orthodox Jew and homosexual ? For some of the Jews featured here, the answer is simply no. The Torah – the Jewish law derived from the Old Testament – states quite clearly that homosexual men are not to be tolerated. In Leviticus 10:13 it states; “A man who lies with a man as one who lies with a woman, they have both done an abomination: they shall be put to death, their blood is on them”. Traditional interpretations of the Torah have also condemned lesbianism – a 16th Century code named the Shulchan Aruch states “For women to rub against each other in the position of sexual intercourse is forbidden. It is fitting for the court to administer lashes for this transgression”. But there is another more complex issue hidden within the film which is never satisfactorily addressed by the various Rabbis who preach hatred towards gays and lesbians, namely; if God is as infinitely merciful and loving as they claim, if he has delivered a covenant that is responsive to the human condition – as a large number of Talmudic scholars believe – then why would he want homosexual Jews to suffer such emotional torment ?

Of course, these issues are ones which go far beyond the Hassidic community. Evangelical Christians, Mormons and Catholics have very similar views towards homosexuality, encouraging anyone who might even suspect themselves to be gay or lesbian to seek immediate counselling in order to rid themselves of what appears to be considered the taint of evil. I find it hard to understand any faith that celebrates God’s love while simultaneously denying it to anyone who does not conform to their view of normality. However, I don’t want to turn this into a forum for my own views on religion beyond stating that I believe in God without having any formal affiliation with any one faith. I am, however, fascinated by religion as an intellectual and social practice and that’s the level on which I approached this film. In particular, Hassidism has a particular fascination because, from the outside, it seems to be an enclosed community with its own customs, language and lifestyle and almost completely alien to my own way of life. Trembling Before G-D assumes a basic level of knowledge about the various strata of Judaism and this may be one of its flaws. Watching the film, you may well be a little confused about the differences between Conservative, Orthodox and Hassidic Judaism and you may well become even more puzzled about the various levels of tolerance within Orthodox Judaism itself. I don’t intend to turn this into a religious studies essay but the director does seem to have taken his audience for granted and, despite his claims to the contrary in the extras on this DVD, made the film for a specifically Jewish audience rather than the worldwide inter-faith and secular audience that it eventually reached.

But even if you’re a bit confused about the religious side of things, there’s no way you can miss the truly horrific agonies of the people whose stories are featured in the film. The stories of those who have suffered rejection, hatred, alienation and condemnation are always humbling and harrowing to listen to and even if Dubowski’s film had done nothing else, it would have succeeded in giving voice to the dispossessed. A small number of stories are made central to the film. We have David, a middle-aged openly gay Orthodox Jew whose first statement is “I would do anything to change”. We see him desperately trying to find acceptance from people he respects and travelling to Israel to speak to Rabbi Langer, the man who told him that he should seek therapy to ‘change’ his sexual orientation. David’s anguish is horribly vivid and the Rabbi’s avuncular personality turns out to conceal a world view which is unbending and cold. He tells David that he must live celibate and that he can never be both faithful to God and in a loving relationship with a man. Then we meet Israel, a 58 year old who was rejected by his parents as a young man and sent to have electro-shock therapy in order to drive the homosexuality out of him. Israel is a marvellous character; funny, passionate and deeply angry about the situation in which he finds himself. There’s a great scene where he breaks down into a heartfelt rant about how the God who loved mankind enough to lead him out of bondage in Egypt could never be reconciled with the God who, he is constantly told, hates gay men so much that he would want their lives to be destroyed. Heartbreakingly, we see him write a letter full of love and optimism to his 97 year old father, still hoping for the paternal love that he has denied for so long. The lesbian point of view is represented by Leah and Malka, a couple who have been rejected by their parents and their peers and who have sublimated their anger into running a helpline service for women with similar problems. We also meet Devorah, a married lesbian who is terrified that her sexuality will be discovered and she will lose access to her children. Most movingly, we see Mark, a British Jew who is dying of AIDS without receiving the acceptance or ‘forgiveness’ from his parents that he desperately wants.

But it’s not all grim social realism. There is joy and love here, particularly in the overwhelmingly positive depiction of real gay and lesbian lives. It’s this which drives home the fact that we still rarely see gay and lesbian couples presented as “normal” human beings without irony or editorialising. It’s also often intentionally funny. There’s a great scene where a gay Jewish psychotherapist called Shlomo Ashkina talks about his encounter with a highly respected Rabbi and has to explain to him that gay sex does not necessarily involve anal penetration. The Rabbi was apparently dumbfounded, not only by this revelation but also by the idea of oral sex – “Why should one man put another man’s schmeki in his mouth?” he asks wonderingly. There is also comic value in a passer-by who turns out to do a fantastic impersonation of Al Pacino and, as you’d expect, a couple of very good Jewish jokes. We also get some valuable balance in the shape of Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox Rabbi who refuses to believe that the archaic interpretation of Jewish law regarding homosexuality has any relevance to contemporary society.

Trembling Before G-D - the title suggests both the Judaic convention of not naming God and the idea that there are lives which are based entirely in concealment – is not a sophisticated film in terms of technique. It’s shot on Digital Video and is somewhat scrappy and careless in terms of framing and editing. The interviews and location filming are interrupted by sequences in silhouette which represent the themes of acceptance and rejection and feature gay and lesbian Jews who did not feel that they could be identified. These sequences are rather clumsy and occasionally look risible. But the overwhelming power of the film and its ability to move and provoke is undeniable. It raises issues about the nature of human communities which go beyond the specific theme of the film and anyone who has ever suffered any kind of alienation or rejection is bound to relate to the stories which are depicted. Most of all, it does exactly what a good documentary should do; it takes the viewer into a situation which may not be immediately accessible and forces them to accept that it has more to do with their lives than they may have, at first, suspected.

The Disc

Anchor Bay UK have provided a splendid DVD release for Trembling Before G-D. Their two disc package contains a good transfer of the film and a fascinating selection of extras which provide more context and expand some of the content.

The film is presented in the original 4:3 format. It’s a reasonable transfer, considering the somewhat amateurish look of the original. The interior interview scenes look better than the exteriors but all in all this looks about as good as an ultra-low budget documentary is ever going to look. The best moments come during some gorgeous twilight vistas and in the silhouette sequences.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and is absolutely fine for the purpose of hearing the dialogue and appreciating the frequent use of Jewish music.

The extra features are all contained on the second disc. There is plenty of good stuff here, although I suggest watching it a while after your first viewing of the film in order to avoid being overwhelmed.

Firstly, we get a 39 minute documentary, “Trembling Upon The Road” which looks at the reception that the film received on release, from its appearance at the 2002 Sundance Festival to its showing in Britain last summer. This is fascinating for the range of reactions on display, from shock horror to amused bewilderment and from tolerance to sheer passionate adoration. The main response seems to have been remarkably positive with a lot of Orthodox Jews shown as being willing to reconsider their assumptions in the light of the movie. This contains some comments from the director, who also features in an in-depth 20 minute interview about the difficulties of making the film. He comes across as enthusiastic and sincere without being embarrassingly propagandistic. Susan Korda, the editor and ‘creative collaborator’, also gets an 8 minute feature to herself. It seems that the film began as a therapeutic video diary and expanded when Dubowski and Korda realised the incredible human stories that they were discovering.

Less successful is a 15 minute short film made by Dubowski called “Tomboychik” which is basically a vaudeville piece with him and his grandmother talking and swapping wigs. This is sometimes charming but almost painfully inconsequential and doesn’t really reveal anything about either person.

“More with the Rabbis” and “More with Rabbi Steve Greenberg” deliver extended conversations with some of the interviewees during which all of them, whether sympathetic or intolerant, reveal depths of eloquence which are remarkable. It’s a privilege to hear this kind of informed talk from men who clearly know their own minds and are more than happy to expand on their views of life. More fascinating talk comes in “Petach Lev: The Trembling Israeli Discussion Project”, a 14 minute piece about the seminar groups which were developed in order to delve into the issues of the film and provide support for people going through similar problems to those featured.

The other features are all brief. There is a small piece about the silhouette scenes and an explanation of the barbaric ‘atonement ritual’ advocated by Hassidism for those who have indulged in homosexual acts. “Mark: The Musical” is a montage of scenes of Jewish life accompanied by a traditional song sung by Mark, whose story is depicted in the film. Finally, we get the theatrical trailer.

There are 20 chapter stops. Subtitles are provided throughout in Hebrew and Yiddish. No continual English subtitles, sadly, although some sentences containing Hebrew words are translated into English.

Trembling Before G-D is a remarkable and unique film which repays close attention. This 2-Disc set presents it very well indeed and is highly recommended to mature, open-minded viewers, particularly those who enjoy documentaries.

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Last updated: 24/04/2018 21:34:50

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