January 18, 2001
Opening the Closet
Sandi Simcha DuBowski examines the lives of Orthodox gays and lesbians in 'Trembling Before G-d.'
In Sandi Simcha DuBowski's searing new documentary, "Trembling Before G-d," about Orthodox gays and lesbians, David, a handsome L.A. doctor, describes struggling to change his sexuality. A psychotherapist prescribed aversion therapy; a rabbi advised David to recite psalms and to eat figs. "I would have tried anything," he says.
"Trembling" also introduces Devorah, an ultra-Orthodox mother who requires anti-depressants to stay in her marriage, and Israel, who was confined to a mental hospital, then banished by his family because he was gay.
"One of the greatest sadnesses I've had in making this film is witnessing Jewish families casting out their own," said DuBowski, 30, whose own supportive, Conservative parents will attend the film's world premiere at Sundance.
Not that his coming out was easy. He did so on the last day of summer vacation before returning to Harvard for his sophomore year. "My mother and I sat on the edge of the bed and I said, 'I have something to tell you, and are you going to love me no matter what?'" he recalled. "It took me 45 minutes to say it, and I was crying nonstop." His mother couldn't eat or sleep for the next three days. "There were fights and talks and a lack of information," he added. "But there was never any question that I was loved."
In fact, "Trembling" began after DuBowski moved back home with his parents in the early 1990s.
"Returning to Jewish Brooklyn awakened something," said the director, whose previous films include an acclaimed short, "Tomboychik." There was something, he said, about standing at Sheepshead Bay for tashlich, the annual ritual purging of sins, with a virtual "universe of Jews." There were Russians and Syrians, Modern Orthodox and unaffiliated. DuBowski began to wonder about Jews who were gay and Orthodox and how they came to terms with the verse in Leviticus that deemed them an "abomination." At the International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews in 1994, he met Mark, a British man with AIDS, exactly his age, who had abandoned Orthodoxy after being kicked out of seven yeshivas. "We became like chavruses [study partners] in a yeshiva without walls," said DuBowski, who brought his camera along as Mark revisited the Israeli schools he had loved in Mea Shearim and B'nai Brak. On Lag BaOmer, director and subject davened and danced all night long on Mount Meron and watched 3-year-old Chassidic boys receiving their first haircuts at dawn. "The film began a Jewish journey for both of us," said DuBowski, who now prays at Orthodox synagogues.
Obtaining additional interviews proved far more difficult. Devorah initially agreed to speak to DuBowski only in a parking lot far from her religious neighborhood. There were clandestine meetings in borrowed apartments or in parks with Jews who declined to reveal their real names or telephone numbers. Rabbis hung up on DuBowski; a former chief rabbi of Israel called his interviewees "animalistic." "I was so distraught," he said.
A Chassidic rebbe in Israel gave him the strength to carry on. The rabbi greeted him with a humble bow in his modest apartment, as a girl made rice pudding in the next room and children played on the outdoor balcony. "I just started weeping," DuBowski recalled. "I told him I had been carrying the pain of so many Jews for so long -- about Mark being sick and David trying to change and all these people who were unhappily married or who had been disowned. And he was utter rachmones [compassion]. He took my project very seriously, which validated the film for me and made me feel that it was not a chilul HaShem [a desecration of God's name]."
Nevertheless, DuBowski expects his ground-breaking documentary to be controversial. After a recent screening for 75 heterosexual Orthodox Jews in New York, the viewers (some supportive, some not) shouted and argued with each other. A woman angrily told DuBowski that he was a liar; that gays could change, and that her daughter -- cast out at 16 because she was a lesbian -- could choose to become heterosexual. Her other daughter, meanwhile, who is not gay, informed the director that she would work hard to promote the movie in her Orthodox community.
DuBowski, who'll appear at Sundance with interviewee Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the only openly gay Orthodox rabbi, hopes the film will continue to promote discussion about a previously taboo subject. "The point of the movie is to help Jews who are suffering," he said.
For information about "Trembling," and DuBowski's upcoming Orthodox community education project, log on to www.tremblingbeforeg-d.com.