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'Trembling Before G-d'

'Trembling Before G-d' documents the life of gays in strict sect

Friday, April 05, 2002

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

David, a thirtysomething son of a Los Angeles cantor, is spinning in a sexual-spiritual conundrum. Despite years of psychological torment, he cannot deny that he is gay. Despite his differences with the clergy, he remains deeply spiritual in an ultra-Orthodox Hebrew tradition based on ancient text that considers homosexuality an "abomination" punishable by death.

 
 
'Trembling Before
G-D'

RATING: Not rated; includes frank subject matter

DIRECTOR: Sandi Simcha DuBowski

WEB SITE: www.tremblingbeforeg-d.com

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

The conservative clerics David sought for counsel didn't want to kill him, but their advice was comical and tortuous. One well-intentioned rabbi told him to eat figs and pray. Another advised him to wrap a rubber band around his wrist and snap it every time he felt attracted to another man.

In "Trembling Before G-d," a video documentary produced and directed by gay activist Sandi Simcha DuBowski, David and a dozen gays and lesbians offer a rare peek into a forbidden recess of the Orthodox community. Shunning a scientific approach, DuBowski offers a sympathetic illustration of their struggle for acceptance by family and faith, and a blanket condemnation of the religious establishment's inability to counsel them.

Taped over five years in Brooklyn, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, London, Miami and San Francisco, "Trembling" was co-produced by Israeli television and has won several awards, including Best Documentary at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival. Less than a balanced examination of the problem, it's a forum for an ultra-Orthodox underclass that has recently begun opening the closet door.

Their isolation is palpable and their stories are touching. Most are estranged from their families, some for decades. DuBowski's video camera is rolling as a gay New York man calls his strictly observant 98-year-old father for the first time in 20 years, only to receive a brief and cold reception. Lesbians celebrating their 12th anniversary as a couple cope with being ostracized from their families. A London man describes his banishment for homosexual behavior from several ultra-Orthodox religious schools and, in one tense scene, David confronts a rabbi who, a decade earlier, had advised him on ways to alter his sexual identity.

DuBowski's interview subjects suffer from many of the same prejudices as gays in mainstream society. But their ordeal is compounded by the tightly knit nature of the community and religious codes that are so strict that even saying or spelling the name of the Creator is prohibited.

Throughout the documentary, homosexuals describe their abiding devotion to the Torah, except for the parts that call for their torture and death. One woman is chastised for singing in front of men. A married lesbian explains the "niddah," rules dictating the number of days from menstruation that a woman may not touch her husband, pass objects or sleep in the same bed.

Scenes of an "atonement ceremony for the sin of homosexual sex" seem tame compared to descriptions of the consequences for coming out in the ultra-Orthodox community, which can include banishment from families, expulsion from schools and synagogues, forced psychological therapy, arranged marriages, no care or burial of AIDS victims and the willingness of rabbinical courts to separate children from gay and lesbian parents. The greatest punishment, however, is their belief that God doesn't love them because they're gay.

Anti-gay clerics are depicted as shrill and rabid, or compassionate though hopelessly misinformed about gay practices. Instead of strengthening the position of the banished gays by clearly articulating the beliefs of their oppressors, DuBowski's bias is flagrant. It's one of several structural flaws that weakens what could have been a more powerful documentary.

DuBowski's focus is on homosexuals vs. religious canon without a scientific challenge to the ancient traditions, a technique that only dulls his central point. And although most of his interview subjects claim to be "out," he settled for people who requested that their faces remain hidden throughout the nearly 90-minute tape. Despite some attractive set shadowbox scenes, amateurish and occasionally clumsy taping with a hand-held video recorder and poor production of traditional music are distracting, weakening an exploration of a controversial issue that deserves a broader forum.

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