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Out in the Open 

A documentary film takes a poignant look at gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
Back in the days I worked at a video store in Flatbush, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a large population of Orthodox Jews, I was always curious about that intensely private group, which seemed as foreign to me as the Amish. In Trembling Before G-d filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski sheds light on one subculture within the devoutly religious group by taking a poignant look at the lives of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews.

Through intimate, frank interviews with a wide spectrum of individuals struggling to reconcile their sexuality with the laws of Orthodox Judaism (which forbids homosexuality), DuBowski investigates a world cloaked in secrecy. A Harvard graduate, DuBowski grew up in a Jewish household that went to synagogue only on holidays, in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. His politics inform all of his work; for three years, he produced short documentaries about the Christian right and the anti-abortion movement as a research associate at Planned Parenthood. He proved his emotional range with the 1993 short Tomboychik, an homage to his 88-year-old grandmother.

His first feature documentary, Trembling gives voice to a dilemma that crosses international borders: The film, which took more than five years to make, was shot in Brooklyn, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, London, Miami, and San Francisco. Although it has its share of pain, the film remains surprisingly objective, including interviews with Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, and more strict interpreters of the religious laws. Central to the film are the heart-wrenching interviews with the courageous individuals whose identities are hidden in silhouettes and behind scrims, but DuBowski does not resort to melodrama to tell their story. The real-life accounts stand on their own, telling the pain of those who remain loyal to a tradition that ultimately rejects them. There's Michelle, a Brooklyn lesbian who left her conventional marriage only to be disowned by her family, and Devorah, a closeted, married Israeli woman who suppresses her desires. David revisits a rabbi who 20 years earlier suggested he seek psychotherapy as a "cure" of his condition. During this encounter, the same rabbi suggests that the only way for David to remain "a good Jew" is to live a life of celibacy.

So far, the film has elicited widespread international response, inspiring ongoing debates in Orthodox circles about the intersection of sexuality and religion. It's a victory for DuBowski, who has started a dialogue that has been long-awaited. Though the film can offer no solutions in what is essentially a heartbreaking situation, it touches on the universal desire to belong and the constant battle between the old and the new.

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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