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Trembling Before G-d (2001)

The hidden lives of gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.

Rating: 4/10

Running Time: 84 minutes

UK Certificate: 15


A fiery section of the book of Leviticus calls in the most unequivocal terms for practitioners of male sodomy to be put to death; and while lesbianism goes unmentioned in the Old Testament, sex between women is explicitly outlawed by a rabbinical ruling from the middle ages. So it might be said that Judaism and homosexuality make strange bedfellows, and while Secular, Liberal and even Conservative branches of Judaism find room to admit same-sex relations, there is no place for gays in the closed community of the Orthodox, where to come out is to be cast out.

Sandi Simcha DuBowski's documentary 'Trembling Before G-d' is a brave, taboo-breaking exploration of the troubled status of gays within Orthodox Jewry. Rather than taking the easy route and simply attacking and ridiculing the inflexibility of Hassidism, the documentary remains resolutely respectful towards the community and its values, focussing primarily on the different viewpoints of insiders. By juxtaposing the opinions of rabbis and psychotherapists with those of gays who have either been forced out of the community, or have remained closeted within it, DuBowski both opens up a dialogue on issues that normally are kept silent, and gives a human (albeit sometimes digitally disguised) face to a group whose very existence is usually ignored or denied.

What emerges is a picture of the repression, misery and isolation imposed on gay people who want to retain their Orthodox identity. One subject was put through a bizarre regime of therapies in a vain attempt to rid himself of his inclinations, and is still, twelve years later, clearly in deep conflict with himself. Another manages to live the lie of her marriage only through anti-depressants, causing great unhappiness both for herself and for her husband. The parents of several gay interviewees have broken off all communications with them. Yet the film also suggests all kinds of ways in which Orthodoxy can accommodate the 'abomination' of homosexuality, pointing to new hope for the future.

'Trembling Before G-d' is a groundbreaking film, whose importance for provoking difficult discussions cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately, however, at a time when other feature-length documentaries (Spellbound, Touching the Void, ‘Capturing the Friedmans’, Bodysong, Être et Avoir) are achieving unprecedented levels of excellence, ‘Trembling Before G-d’ is just not, despite its good intentions, a particularly well-made film. While it is extraordinary that DuBowski has managed to locate and interview closeted Orthodox Jews, and their stories are always interesting, there is something makeshift about the way the whole project has been thrown together, suggestive more of a home video than a film on general release. DuBowski eschews commentary, preferring to let his interviewees tell their own story, but the need to conceal the identity of many of his subjects at times obscures the point being made – e.g. an anecdote told by ‘Leah’ about an unnamed Israeli woman who MAY have been a lesbian and who MAY have committed suicide for that reason throws only the most tangential light on an issue (the prevalence of suicide amongst gays in the Orthodox community) which merits much more thorough treatment. And although the soundtrack is by eclectic genius John Zorn, it never rises beyond the most generic of klezmer-lite. Still, even if ‘Trembling Before G-d’ is no masterpiece, it deserves recognition as the first film to bring this heated issue out of the closet and onto the Sabbath table.

It's Got: A psychotherapist proposing a daily dosage of figs and dates as a cure for homosexual urges, a passer-by in Israel saying to the camera I can do movies. What do you want, Al Pacino?, and a whole lot of silhouettes.

It Needs: More structure, some contextualising commentary, and less repetition.

DVD Extras It is in its extras that this double-DVD really comes into its own. There is an option for Hebrew or (romanised) Yiddish subtitles, and a theatrical trailer. There is an excellent 37-minute featurette, Trembling on the Road, showing how the release of the film has encouraged many closeted Orthodox gays to come out, many Orthodox rabbis, schools and parents to re-examine their own attitudes and policies, and has raised a queer awareness within the community. A twenty-minute interview with DuBowski is full of the sort of informative detail that so often seems lacking from the film itself - and the lengthy interviews with all the rabbis from the film are far more interesting, balanced and compassionate than the films soundbites. A fourteen-minute section on an Israeli education project is full of rich anecdotes about the films reception amongst Orthodox audiences. There is a briefer but still informative section on the atonement ceremony for sexual sins, and a very short cli p showing Shlomo Ashkinazy coming out on Donohue. For completists only are the uninformative interview with editor Susan Korda, the footage of Mark (one of the films subjects) singing Jewish songs, the account of how the filmls silhouette sequences were filmed, and the nicely titled but amateurish Tomboychik, DuBowskis 15-minute short film from 1993 documenting his relationship with his grandmother. Lastly there is a series of weblinks for gay Jews. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10


A groundbreaking film of inestimable importance – but not a very good one.